Cherokee rocket scientist leaves NMAI a heavenly gift
Mary G. Ross blazed a trail in the sky as a woman engineer in the space race, and her bequest will propel the museum's future educational journeys.
Photo by Mary McCarthy
Mary G. Ross, the first Native American woman engineer, joins in the opening procession on the National Mall for the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian. Ross, at the time 96, was among more than 25,000 Native Americans at the celebration.
Photo by Mary McCarthy
Mary G. Ross, at 96, sits beside the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian at dusk, following the museum's opening in 2004. Ross, the great-great granddaughter of Cherokee Chief John Ross, died in April 2008.
click images to access high resolution photo page
By Kara Briggs
When she was 96 years old, Mary Golda Ross asked her niece to make her something very special: the first traditional Cherokee dress that Ross, the great-great-granddaughter of renowned Chief John Ross, would ever own.
Because Ross, after a lifetime of high-flying achievement as one of the nation's most prominent women scientists of the space age, wanted to wear her ancestral dress to the 2004 opening of the Smithsonian's new National Museum of the American Indian.
Last month, the museum received notice of a generous bequest from Mary G. Ross, who died in April, only three months shy of her 100th birthday.
"She was a strong-willed, independent woman who was ahead of her time," said her Oneida friend Norbert Hill, chairman of the National Museum of the American Indian's Board of Trustees, "and a proud woman who never forgot where she was from."
Wearing that dress of green calico, Ross joined in the procession of 25,000 Native people that opened the museum four years ago. Now her gift, invested in the museum's endowment, will help perpetuate the cultural and educational mission of the National Museum of the American Indian for future generations.
"She gave to endowment," her niece and executor Evelyn Ross McMillan said, "because endowment perpetuates itself. She was a mathematician, and she knew if you gave a large scholarship it would be gone in a year. But if you gave to endowment the principal would continue to give."
Mary G. Ross—whose Cherokee lineage includes leaders and teachers and who herself now figures in the lineage as the Cherokee rocket scientist—spent her century of life looking mostly into the future.
Born in 1908 on her parents' allotment in the foothills of the Ozarks, she was one year younger than the state of Oklahoma. It had been 70 years since her ancestor led his people over the Trail of Tears. She was 5 years old before she rode in a car. A gifted child, she was sent to live with her grandparents in Tahlequah, the capitol of the Cherokee Nation, and attend day school. Her high school math teacher was a Cherokee, who, she later said, "took for granted that you could do what you could do." At 16, she enrolled in Northeastern State Teachers College, which Chief John Ross was involved in founding.
She told the San Jose Mercury News in 1994, "When I went to the college to enroll, they asked me what I wanted for my major subject. I said, ‘What's a major subject?' The person finally said, ‘What did you have the most fun with when you were in high school?'
"Well, math, of course," the slender, 5-foot-10-inch girl answered.
She graduated with a bachelor's degree in 1928 and taught math and science for nine years in nearby high schools. By 1937, Ross remembered asking herself, "Are you going to go out and see anything of the world, or are you going to stay in Northern Oklahoma?"
She took the civil service exam and was hired as a statistical clerk at the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C. Once there, a Cherokee woman from the Department of Education quickly noticed her, Ross recalled for the newspaper.
"We can't waste you here," the official said. "You're an Indian with a degree and experience in teaching. We need you in the field."
An education in the stars
At age 29 in 1937, she was sent to Santa Fe, N.M., to work as the girls' advisor at a school for American Indian artists. The school would become the Institute of American Indian Art. In the summers Ross pursued a master's degree in mathematics at the University of Northern Colorado.
While there, she took every astronomy class the school had, and read every book about the stars. The clear night sky in Colorado fascinated her.
She was visiting friends in Southern California when she heard that the Lockheed Corporation, left short of highly skilled workers upon the outbreak of World War II, was looking for people with her technical background. She was hired as a mathematician in 1942.
She was assigned to work with the engineering staff on two questions: the effects of pressure on the P-38 Lightning fighter plane—the first to go more than 400 mph—as it neared the sound barrier, and improving the aeroelasticity of that first plane so large it had to be treated as a flexible body. At the time Ross already knew interplanetary work was what she would enjoy most, but she thought, "If I had mentioned it in 1942, my credibility would have been questioned."
After the war, Ross thought she, like most women, would be sent home. But Lockheed had something else in mind for her. The corporation offered to send her to the University of California at Los Angeles to get a professional certification in engineering. She studied mathematics for modern engineering, aeronautics and missile and celestial mechanics. By 1948, Ross was on the ground floor of what would become the space race.
A top-secret role
In 1952 Lockheed asked Ross to be one of 40 engineers in what became known as the Lockheed Skunk Works, a super-secret think tank led by legendary aeronautics engineer Clarence "Kelly" Johnson. It was the start of Lockheed Missiles & Space Co., a major consultant to NASA based in Sunnyvale, Calif. Ross was 45, the only woman and the only Native American. A single woman, she bought herself a 900-square-foot house with a rose garden and an apricot tree.
Her Lockheed team's top-secret project? "Preliminary design concepts for interplanetary space travel, manned and unmanned earth-orbiting flights, the earliest studies of orbiting satellites for both defense and civilian purposes," columnist Leigh Weimers wrote in the Mercury News in 1994.
"Often at night there were four of us working until 11 p.m.," Ross recalled in the article. "I was the pencil pusher, doing a lot of research. My state of the art tools were a slide rule and a Frieden computer."
Most of the theories and papers that emerged from the group, including those by Ross, are still classified. As she told her alma mater's newspaper in the 1990s, "We were taking the theoretical and making it real." One of Ross' seminal roles was as one of the authors of the NASA Planetary Flight Handbook Vol. III, about space travel to Mars and Venus.
"She was just one of the guys," said Norbert Hill, who met Ross when he was executive director of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society. "She was as smart as the rest of them and she held her own."
Woman of the year
Around the time of the Soviet Union's 1957 launch of Sputnik, Ross moved into the public eye. In 1958 she appeared on the television show "What's My Line?" It took contestants many guesses before they realized that the smiling woman in a V-necked, sleeveless black dress in fact, as the caption read, "Designs Rocket Missiles and Satellites (Lockheed Aircraft)."
One San Francisco-area newspaper article from 1961 called Ross "possibly the most influential Indian maid since Pocahontas," and noted that she was "making her mark in outer space." She told the interviewer, "I think of myself as applying mathematics in a fascinating field."
The article was on the occasion of Ross being recognized as the Peninsula Woman of the Year by the women's communications society Theta Sigma Phi. The award recognized Ross' "extraordinary contribution to space age communications" for her recognition of the potential of satellites as a means of global communication.
Another article from the time noted that Ross, who had yet to see a rocket blast off, believed that women would make "wonderful astronauts." But she said, "I'd rather stay down here and analyze the data."
Looking toward the future
Ross retired from Lockheed at age 65 in 1973, and turned her attention to the next generation of Native Americans and women in engineering.
She recruited high school and college students to the field. A member of the Society of Women Engineers since the 1950s, she also took an interest in American Indian groups such as the American Indian Science and Engineering Society and the Council of Energy Resource Tribes.
"To function efficiently, you need math," she said later in life. "The world is so technical, if you plan to work in it, a math background will let you go farther and faster."
Norbert Hill remembers her calling him in her later years as awards and honors came her way.
"She'd say, ‘Should I take this?'" Hill remembers, "I used to say, ‘It would be good for Indian people if you would do that.' She would never do that just for herself."
One of the few regrets she ever mentioned was that she had spent so much of her life apart from Indian people. Part of Ross' longevity, her niece said, stemmed from her belief in "keeping old friends and making new friends." Among her newer friends, Cara Cowan Watts, an engineer and elected legislator of the Cherokee Nation, has said, "Just think, a Cherokee woman from Park Hill (Okla.) helped put an American on the moon."
At 96, Ross was looking ahead again—to the long-anticipated Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. In the opening procession, she stepped out of her electric wheelchair on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and walked for half a block.
"She felt she was a part of history being made, again," Hill said.
Ross told the Los Altos (Calif.) Town Crier newspaper in 2004, "The museum will tell the true story of the Indian—not just the story of the past, but an ongoing story."
Mary G. Ross, biography in brief
Photo courtesy of Evelyn Ross McMillan
Portrait of Mary G. Ross, the first Native American woman engineer.
Why did this happen to me? How without an engineering degree and no previous experience was I able to adapt and move through such an interesting career? The answer, I think, is that I had a firm foundation in mathematics and those qualities that came down to me from my Indian heritage. I had a great deal of curiosity, interest, willingness to study and to learn, to try out new ideas and most of all to work. – Mary Ross, 1992
1838: Her ancestor, Chief John Ross, leads Cherokee over Trail of Tears, advocates for an Indian state and education for Cherokee men and women
1907: Oklahoma becomes a state
1908: Mary Golda Ross born, near Park Hill, Okla.
1924: Ross enrolls in Northeastern State Teachers College, Okla.
1928: Receives bachelor's degree in mathematics from Northeastern State Teachers College
1931: Begins teaching high school math and science
1937: Passes civil service exam, hired by Bureau of Indian Affairs, becomes women's student advisor at a new Indian boarding school in Santa Fe, N.M.
1938: Receives master's degree in mathematics from University of Northern Colorado
1941: U.S. enters World War II; P-38 Lightning fighter plane introduced
1942: Hired as mathematician by Lockheed Corporation; works on the P-38
1948: Becomes registered professional engineer in California
1953: Transfers to Guided Missiles Group at Lockheed Corp.
1956: Lockheed receives contract to develop the Polaris submarine launched ballistic missile
1957: Transfers to Lockheed Missiles & Space Co., Sunnyvale, Calif.; Soviet Union launches Sputnik
1958: U.S. establishes National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
1961: Elected president of Altrusa Club of Sunnyvale, Calif.; Matrix Table Award for Space Age Communication of Ideas, Theta Sigma Phi; Woman of Distinction Award, San Francisco Examiner; first U.S. manned space flight takes place
1962: One of the authors of NASA Planetary Flight Handbook Vol. III
1973: Ross, 65, retires
1977: American Indian Science and Engineering Society established
1985: Earns Distinguished Contributions to Engineering and Society Community Award from the Society of Manufacturing Engineers
1989: Congress passes legislation establishing the National Museum of the American Indian
1992: Inducted into the Silicon Valley Hall of Fame
1994: Receives Women of Achievement Award from the Women's Fund
2004: Participates in opening of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, Washington, D.C.
2008: Ross dies, leaving gifts to the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian; Northeastern (Okla.) State University; the University of Northern Colorado; the American Indian Science and Engineering Society; the Society of Women Engineers
Back to Top