First woman engineer was key to super-secret American defense and space programs

Skunk Works, the super-secret organization, took it's name from L'il Abner comics fictitious "Skong Works." (NL)


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Ross paved the way for human space exploration

L’il Abner comics inspired the name for super-secret team


The term “skunkworks” relates to group of special people who, in order to achieve unusual results, work on a project in a way that is outside the usual rules. A skunkworks is often a small team that assumes or is given responsibility for developing something in a short time with minimal management constraints.

L’il Abner comics (Al Capp)

The world was originally introduced to “the skonk works” from a comic strip from cartoonist Al Capp that originated in 1938. The L’il Abner comic strip, featured a secret outdoor still called skonk works where “Kickapoo joy juice” was produced from old shoes and dead skunks. L’il Abner was located in the fictitious community of Dogpatch, and reached 60 million readers in over 900 American newspapers and 100 foreign papers in 28 countries.

In the 1943s, Lockheed Corporation selected 40 engineers for a super-secret think tank led by legendary aeronautics engineer Clarence “Kelly” Johnson. His elite engineering group was originally housed in a rented circus tent lacking good lighting, air-conditioning and adequate space. It was located adjacent to a smelly plastics factory. One day an aircraft designer answered the phone and said, “skonk works.” The name stuck, and later became today’s Skunk Works — a registered trademark. However, the formal name of the Skunk Works is “Lockheed Martin Advanced Development Program.”

Skunk Works was founded to build the XP-80, the first U.S. production jet fighter for World War II. Later, its engineers secretly designed and built, among other advanced aircraft, the U-2 spy plane that was shot down over the Soviet Union and the F-117 Stealth fighters used to attack Baghdad in the Gulf War.

When she was 96 years old, Mary Golda Ross asked her niece to make her something very special. It would be the only traditional Cherokee dress that Ross, the great-great-granddaughter of renowned Chief John Ross, ever owned.

Ross, known as one of the nation’s most prominent women scientists of the space age, wanted to wear her ancestral dress to the opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. Wearing that dress of green calico, Ross joined in the procession of 25,000 Native peoples that opened the museum in 2004.

Mary Gold Ross

When she died just three months shy of her 100th birthday in 2008, it was noted that Ross spent her century on earth looking mostly into the future.  Most people recognize the names of Neil Armstrong, John Glenn or Buzz Aldrin, but Ross paved the way for human space exploration decades before they were heard of.

In the 1940s, Ross was the only major female consultant to NASA, while working for Lockheed based in Sunnyvale, California. She was also the only Native American. Originally hired as a mathematician at Lockheed Corporation, her work with engineers who were doing the pioneering research that would launch the space race was noticed. Lockheed trained her to become one of the 40 engineers for the Skunk Works.

1959 clipping of Ross article.

Part of their top secret work entailed the preliminary design concepts for interplanetary space travel. This included manned and unmanned earth-orbiting flights. For years after her work, Ross would not discuss the project because it involved the earliest studies of orbiting satellites for both defense and civilian purposes. Much of her work that came from this secret group remains classified.

Skunk Works not only designed the XP-80 and U-2, but also the  SR-71 Blackbird, F-117 Nighthawk, F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II aircrafts. The term “skunk works” is a commonly used now in engineering and technical circles to describe a group having a high degree of autonomy and immunities from bureaucracy to advance secret projects.

U-2 Spy plane

“We were taking the theoretical and making it real,” she told others. Some of her work was authoring NASA Planetary Flight handbooks about space travel to Mars and Venus. In a San Jose Mercury News article in 1994, Ross said that “often at night there were four of us working until 11 p.m. I was the pencil pusher, doing a lot of research. My state of the art tools were a slide rule and a Frieden computer.”

She passed away in 2008 just three months shy of her 100th birthday. Born in 1908 on her parents’ allotment in the foothills of the Ozarks, she was one year younger than the state of Oklahoma. At 16, she enrolled in Northeastern State Teachers College, which her ancestor Chief John Ross was involved in founding.  She taught science and math during the Great Depression in rural Oklahoma. By 1937 she was teaching at a school for American Indian artists in Santa Fe that would later become the Institute of American Indian Art. She pursued a master’s degree at the University of Northern Colorado, where she took every astronomy class they had.

F-117 Stealth

Four years before she passed away, as the National Museum of the American Indian opened, Ross knew that this was an occasion of historic importance. This forward thinking Cherokee woman who helped put an American man on the moon said, “The museum will tell the true story of the Indian—not just the story of the past, but an ongoing story.”

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