Mary Golda Ross: The first Native American female engineer

JASMIN K. WILLIAMS Amsterdam News Staff | 3/21/2013, 2:27 p.m.

In a 1994 article appearing in the San Jose Mercury News, Ross' top-secret work was described as "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."

"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," she said.

Ross did have her turn in the public eye. In 1958, she appeared on the TV show "What's My Line?" Who could guess the identity of the woman in the black dress with the caption "Designs Rocket Missiles and Satellites (Lockheed Aircraft)"

Ross, who had never seen a rocket blast off, believed that women would make wonderful astronauts. "But," she said, "I'd rather stay down here and analyze the data." The progressive and brilliant work of this Cherokee woman would help put an American on the moon. By 1958, she was working on satellite orbits and the Agena rockets, whose development and successful launch put the United States squarely in the space race.

Ross moved through the engineering ranks at Lockheed and became the senior advanced systems staff engineer, which allowed her to contribute to the development of the Poseidon and Trident missiles.

Ross retired from Lockheed in 1973, and began another career as an advocate of education in engineering and mathematics, as well as an advocate for career opportunities in those fields for women and Native Americans.

"To function efficiently, you need math," she said. "The world is so technical; if you plan to work in it, a math background will let you go farther and faster."

She became a pioneering member of the Society of Women Engineers, traveling to high schools to mentor college bound seniors. She also involved herself with the American Indian Science and Engineering Society and the Council of Energy Resource Tribes, expanding the education programs in both organizations. In 1992, the Silicon Valley Engineering Council inducted Ross into its Hall of Fame.

In 2004, Ross was on hand along with 25,000 other indigenous Americans for the opening of the Smithsonian Museum's National Museum of the American Indian. For the special occasion, she asked her niece to make her a traditional Cherokee dress, the first that the 96-year-old Ross would ever own.

The American Indian News service quoted her friend Norbert Hill's description of the pioneering scientist: "She was a strong-willed, independent woman who was ahead of her time, and a proud woman who never forgot where she was from."

Mary G. Ross died on April 29, 2008, a few months shy of her 100th birthday.

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