Mary Golda Ross: aerospace engineer, educator and lawyer

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How did Mary Golda Ross of Park Hill, Oklahoma become an engineer working on some of the most important and secret Cold War aerospace technologies? In her words, she “started with a solid foundation in mathematics and qualities that came to me from my Indian heritage.”

Aerospace engineer Mary Golda Ross at work, ca. 1960s. (Image courtesy of Northeastern State University Special Collections and Archives)

Ross was born in 1908 in Park Hill, Oklahoma, a town near Tahlequah, the capital of the Cherokee Nation. She was the second of five children born to William Wallace Ross Jr. and Mary Henrietta Moore Ross, both Cherokee citizens. His great-great-grandfather was John Ross, the main chief of the Cherokee nation.

His youth was full of Cherokee culture and history. Looking back on her elementary and secondary school years, Ross remarked, “I had as many Indian teachers as non-Indians. My high school math teacher was a Cherokee. After high school, Ross attended Northeastern State Teacher’s College in Tahlequah where she graduated in 1928 with a degree in mathematics. Previously, the college was the site of the Cherokee Female Seminary, one of the first tribally funded women’s educational institutions west of the Mississippi.

Ross then became a teacher, instructing students in math and science for nearly 10 years in public schools. In 1937, she accepted a position as a student counselor at the Santa Fe Indian School, a government-run boarding school for Native Americans in New Mexico. These public schools were often isolated places, as Indigenous students were separated from their parents and families. It would have been important for the students to have native teachers and counselors to instruct them.

During summer vacation, Ross returned to the classroom, this time as a student rather than an educator. Between 1932 and 1938, she took graduate courses at Colorado State Teachers College (now the University of Northern Colorado), which culminated in a master’s degree in mathematics. Continuing her education was important to her. Ross said: “The world is so technical, if you plan to work in it, a math background will allow you to go further and faster.”

Educating others was a key part of her life’s work, in part because teaching was one of the few careers available to female math and science graduates due to gender-biased hiring practices in university labs and industrial. The need for skilled mathematicians during World War II would soon change Ross’ career path and launch her into unprecedented territory.

Like many other natives, Ross answered the call for national service during World War II. In 1942, she joined Lockheed Aircraft Corporation in Burbank, California, as a mathematical research assistant. She was part of the Advanced Development Projects group, informally known as Skunk Works. Ross and his colleagues worked to improve the design of the P-38 Lightning, a fighter aircraft used by the United States Air Force and other military aircraft. She specialized in the study of how aircraft react to aerodynamic forces.

Passionate about her work, Ross’s curiosity and love of learning led her to take advanced courses in aeronautical engineering at the University of California-Los Angeles Extension School. Through her education, Ross graduated as a Chartered Professional Engineer in 1949. She was the first known Native American female engineer. Ross’ new title allowed him to take on more responsibility.

At the same time, political and technological developments have opened up new areas of research. As a cold war emerged from the end of World War II, the US military identified a new weapon – missiles – as a top priority. Lockheed responded by creating a new company, Lockheed Missiles and Space Company. With this new company, Ross worked on many projects, including the submarine-launched Polaris missile and the Agena launch vehicle, which carried military, intelligence, and civilian payloads into space.

The Agena-B upper stage was used in the 1960s as an orbital injection vehicle for Midas and other satellites and as a midstage booster for Ranger and early Mariner space probes.

Ross made contributions to the American aerospace industry of immediate significance and lasting impact, although the total impact remains unknown as much of his work is still classified. His work was also fundamental. She contributed to NASA Manual of Interplanetary Flight, vol. 3 (1963), which detail the flight paths of spacecraft to Mars and Venus. This resource has informed the work of research teams on manned spaceflight. Ross retired from Lockheed in 1973.

Ross has been a lifelong advocate of service and education, and an advocate for women and Indigenous people in engineering. She was a founding member of the Los Angeles Chapter of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), an organization that provided professional development and community for practicing engineers and supported mentorship and scholarship programs for female engineering students. Throughout his involvement with SWE, Ross has lectured to high school and college classrooms, funded scholarships, and served on SWE’s National Board of Directors. She was also active in the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, founded in 1977 to support indigenous students at all levels in science and engineering. Ross was known as a “legend” among Aboriginal engineering students.

Ross has encouraged the preservation and celebration of Indigenous histories and cultures through his support of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). At the age of 96, Ross attended the 2004 opening of the NMAI in Washington, DC, which included more than 25,000 Western Hemisphere natives. She wore a green calico Cherokee dress that her niece had sewn for her. Speaking of the importance of the museum, Ross said the NMAI “will tell the real story of the Indian, not just the story of the past, but a story in progress.” Ross wasn’t just a longtime member of the NMAI; she also bequeathed over $400,000 to the museum for an endowment.

Mary Golda Ross seated outside the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC. (Image courtesy of Northeastern State University Special Collections and Archives.)

Ross’ legacy lives on in the technologies she designed, the people she inspired, and the museums, libraries and archives that hold records of her life and career. Artists also honor and share Ross’ story. Oklahoma-based artist America Meredith, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, commemorated Ross in a painting titled, Astra announcement by Astra, now in the collection of the National Museum of the American Indian. The title is a play on the popular Latin phrase, Per Aspera ad Astra (“through the difficulties of the stars”). Meredith’s title translates to “to the stars through the stars” which is inspired by Cherokee cosmology about how spirits long ago lifted young boys into the sky, forming the Pleiades. Meredith depicts Ross standing in front of a starry sky with the RM-81 Agena to his right and a seven-pointed star (the seven clans of the Cherokee) above his head, symbolizing his dedication to his culture and his career.

Astra announcement by Astra by America Meredith, representing Mary Gold Ross. Image courtesy of Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.

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