History’s Heroines

Mary Golda Ross- First Native American, Female Engineer

photo credit: @megan5mem

       photo credit: @megan5mem

Mary Golda Ross

Aug. 9, 1908, Oklahoma – April 29, 2008, California

One year after Oklahoma was inducted into the United States as its 46th state, Miss Mary G. Ross was born. As the great-great-granddaughter of Cherokee Nation Chief, John Ross, Mary grew up in the tribe’s capital of Tahlequah, where she lived with her grandparents. Her family espoused the Cherokee Nation tribe’s innate value of the importance of equal education for both boys and girls.

Having attained her primary and secondary educations in Talequa, Miss Ross then attained a Bachelor’s Degree from Northeast State College in Mathematics and later, a Master’s Degree, also in Mathematics, from Colorado State College, the latter, in which, according to Mary, she took “every astronomy course they had.” Though she was often the only female in her classes, Mary was undeterred, instead, finding the humor and challenge of her position.

Upon her graduation, she taught high school mathematics, before moving from Oklahoma to Washington D.C. where she found a position as a statistician within the Bureau for Indian Affairs.
When the United States entered the Second World War in 1941, Ms. Ross, at the advice of her father, moved to California. By the following year, she had secured a job as a mathematician for Lockheed Aircraft Corporation in Burbank, California. During the war, she participated in many projects including the P-38, the fastest airplane of the time. Mary proved herself such a knowledgeable, competent, capable mathematician that her manager sent her to UCLA to attain an engineering degree, paid for by Lockheed.

After the war, and now, with an additional degree, Mary was promoted to highly sensitive projects, many of whom remain classified to this day. It is known, however, that she participated in both the RM-81 Agena and Trident Rocket programs, both of which were crucial predecessors for the manned Apollo Spacecraft that went to the moon. Ms. Ross was also the only female (other than the secretary) to be on the “Skunk Works” team; a top-secret program focused on interplanetary space travel, and satellite development and launch programs.
By the 1960’s she was a senior, advanced-systems engineer within the Lockheed Corporation, working on the development of space re-entry vehicles, among them, the Polaris. Among her many duties, she co-authored the NASA Planetary Flight Handbook, Vol. III.

Though she retired from Lockheed in 1973, she didn’t slow down. In the following years, she would dedicate herself to the encouragement of Native American youth towards education and careers in mathematics, science, and engineering.
In the 1990’she was given an achievement award by both the American Indians in Science and Engineering Society and also the Council of Energy Resource Tribes for her lifelong work with the organizations. Mary also was inducted into the Silicon Valley Engineer’s Council Hall of Fame in 1992, among numerous other achievements and awards. A sculpture in her honor and likeness graces the gardens at Buffalo State College, in Buffalo New York.
Ms. Ross passed away just four months before her 100th birthday.

Mary Gold Ross is considered the first-ever female Native American Engineer, and the first female engineer to ever work at Lockheed Corporation.

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