Mary Golda Ross was the first known Native American female engineer. She was born in the Oklahoma community of Park Hill in 1908. One of her great-grandfathers was John Ross, a longtime and widely renowned chief of the Cherokee Nation who helped guide his people through such tumultuous experiences as the Civil War and the large-scale relocation of Native Americans to land set aside for them by the U.S. government.
Mary G. Ross demonstrated great academic potential at an early age. She was sent to live with her grandparents in the Oklahoma city of Tahlequah, which is the capital of the Cherokee Nation, in order to attend primary and secondary school there. “I was brought up in the Cherokee tradition of equal education for boys and girls,” she recalled about those years in Tahlequah.
When she was only 16, Ross began her studies at Northeastern State Teachers’ College in Tahlequah. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics when she was 20. Ross subsequently taught mathematics and science in rural schools in Oklahoma for nine years. She also worked as an advisor for female students at the Santa Fe Indian School in New Mexico. In 1938, Ross earned her master’s degree in mathematics from Colorado State College of Education (the present-day University of Northern Colorado).
After the U.S. entry into World War II, Ross made her way to California in search of new employment opportunities. It was there in the Golden State that she was hired as a mathematician at the Lockheed Aircraft Company (now part of Lockheed Martin Corporation). Her initial work at Lockheed included examining the effects of pressure on the Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighter aircraft. This P-38 was the first military plane to travel faster than 400 miles (640 kilometers) per hour in level flight, and Ross’s job entailed addressing numerous design issues potentially undermining that aircraft’s aeroelasticity and level of speed.
Ross continued to work at Lockheed after the war ended. The company, highly valuing her contributions and expertise, even sent her to the University of California, Los Angeles, for a professional certification in engineering that focused on such areas as aeronautics and celestial mechanics.
By the late 1940s, Ross was becoming increasingly immersed in Lockheed research and planning efforts that would play a key role in the U.S. space program. She helped develop the Agena rocket, which ultimately proved to be critical to the Apollo program and its lunar missions.
Another major career milestone for Ross took place in 1952, when she became one of 40 engineers to participate in a then-secret initiative collectively called Lockheed Advanced Development Projects (now known Advanced Development Programs). Ross was the only woman and also the only Native American involved in this effort, which formulated concepts and blueprints for everything from possible travel into outer space to both manned and unmanned earth-orbiting flights.
“Often at night there were four of us working until 11 p.m.,” Ross later recounted. “I was the pencil pusher, doing a lot of research. My state of the art tools were a slide rule and a Frieden computer. We were taking the theoretical and making it real.”
Ross’s status as a trailblazing aviation engineer eventually won her acclaim well beyond the offices and corridors of Lockheed. In 1958, she even appeared on the TV game show “What’s My Line?” Ross retired in 1973, and she spent much of the remaining decades of her life helping to promote careers in engineering among Native American youth. A large part of this advocacy involved working closely with both the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) and the Council of Energy Resource Tribes (CERT) to further build up their respective educational programs.
When she was 96, Ross traveled to Washington, D.C., to take part in the dedication ceremonies for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. Ross died in Los Altos in 2008, just a few months before her 100th birthday. Her tombstone reads: “She reached for the stars.” (The above image of Ross appears on the reverse of the 2019 Native American Dollar coin.)
For more information on Mary G. Ross, please check out http://time.com/5362032/google-doodle-mary-g-ross-native-american-engineer/and https://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/mary-ross-google-doodle-golda-who-death-space-engineer-mathematician-native-american-cherokee-a8485286.html.
A video highlighting her life and accomplishments is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kwZPVgdLQ_E.