Celebrated Native American Female Engineer

Mary Golda Ross was born in Park Hill, Oklahoma on August 9th, 1908. Park Hill is close to Tahlequah, which is the capital of the Cherokee Nation. Mary’s parents were Mary Henrietta Moore Ross and William Wallace Ross, Jr. who were both Cherokee citizens. She was the second of five children. Her great-great grandfather was John Ross, the Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation.

Her parents recognized early on that she was extremely intelligent. They sent her to live with her grandparents in Tahlequah where she attended primary and secondary school. At the tender age of 16 Mary entered Northeastern State Teachers College in Tahlequah, earning a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, in 1928. She earned her master’s degree from Colorado State Teachers College in Greely in 1938, where she took “every astronomy class they had.”

Mary taught science and math in the rural schools in Oklahoma for nine years. She took the civil service exam so that she could work at the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) in Washington, D.C. when she was 28. She worked as a statistical clerk there, but was reassigned to the Santa Fe Indian School as an advisor/counselor for the girls. She earned her master’s degree during this time and read voraciously the fields that were her passion, mathematics and astronomy.

When the U.S. joined World War II in 1941, on the advice of her father, she moved to California and sought work there. Lockheed hired her as a mathematician. She began exploring the effects of pressure on the Lockheed P-38 Lightning. It was one of the fastest airplanes being flown at that tie. It was the first military plane to fly in level flight faster than 400 mph. Mary helped solve many design issues that were in solved in high speed flight and issues of aeroelasticity. (Aeroelasticity in regard to aircraft structures is defined as the branch that investigates the phenomena that emerge due to the interaction of aerodynamic (in particular unsteady), inertial and elastic forces emerging during the relative movement of a fluid (air) and a flexible body aircraft. She enjoyed the work and excelled at it but her real passion was working on interplanetary spaceflight. Later in her life, during an interview, she said “If I had mentioned it in 1942, my credibility would have been questioned.” She worked hard and often late into the night. “I was the pencil pushers doing a lot of research. My state of the art tools were a slide rule and a Friden computer. (The Friden was the first fully transistorized desktop electronic calculator, released in 1963, costing over $2,000.)

Mary was the first known Native American female engineer, and the first female engineer in the history of the Lockheed Company. She worked at Lockheed from 1942 until her retirement in 1973. Mary joined Lockheed’s Advance Development Program. She is remembered for her work in aerospace design and many other design concepts for interplanetary space travel. She got to work on her favorite area of travel! Mary also completed some of the first studies of orbiting satellites for both defense and civilian purposes. She worked with a team on the Agena rocket project and on some of the first design concepts for flyby missions to Venus and Mars. “We were taking the theoretical and making it real, “ she said. Mary was one of the authors of the NASA Planetary Flight Handbook Volume III concerning space travel to Mars and Venus.

Norbert Hill, the executive director of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, said after meeting Mary Ross, “She was just one of the guys. She was as smart as the rest of them and she held her own,”

During the late 1960’s Mary was a senior advanced systems staff engineer hard at work on the Polaris reentry vehicle and the Poseidon and Trident missiles.

After her retirement in 1973 in Los Altos, California, Mary worked with young women and Native American youth to encourage them to look at careers in engineering. She was the recipient of numerous awards and honors.

When she was 96, she wore her full traditional Cherokee dress of green calico made by her niece, and participated in the opening ceremonies of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. When she passed away in 2008 she left an endowment of $400,000 to that museum.

Why have we never heard of this remarkable woman? Well, now we have!