First woman engineer was key to American defense and space programs

Space satellite.


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Mary Gold Ross

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.

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 in known as the Lockheed Skunk Works, a super-secret think tank led by legendary aeronautics engineer Clarence “Kelly” Johnson.

1959 clipping of Ross article.

The 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, took its name from the moonshine factory featured in the Li’l Abner, a popular American comic strip for decades. It was the alias for Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Development Programs which designed the U-2, 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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