Mary G. Ross was a rocket scientist long before man even walked on the moon. Born on Aug. 9, 1908, in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains, she was just a year younger than the state of Oklahoma, where her Cherokee ancestors had been forced to relocate some 70 years earlier on the infamous Trail of Tears. Her grandfather, John Ross, was the principal chief of the Cherokee nation between 1828 and 1866, and she took great pride in her heritage, which stressed a tradition of equal education for both boys and girls. Ross gravitated toward math and science and oftentimes found herself the only girl in the class.
“Math was more fun than anything else. It was always a game to me,” she explained in Laurel M. Sheppard’s profile “Aerospace Pioneer Returns to her Native American Roots.” “I was the only female in my class. I sat on one side of the room and the guys on the other side of the room. I guess they didn’t want to associate with me. But I could hold my own with them and sometimes did better.”
Ross graduated from high school at 16 and later attended Northeastern State Teacher’s College, graduating in 1928. For the next nine years, she taught math and science in public schools.
By 1937, Ross had started asking herself, “Are you going to go out and see anything of the world, or are you going to stay in northern Oklahoma?” She went on to work as a statistical clerk for the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) in Washington, D.C. Her talents were quickly recognized and she was sent out into the field. She went on to serve as an advisor at a Native American school in Santa Fe, N.M., which later became the Institute of American Indian Art. She returned to school herself and earned a master’s degree in mathematics from the Colorado State Teachers College in 1938. While there, however, she developed a keen interest in astronomy, reading every book on the subject she could get her hands on.
With World War II came a keen interest in aviation. In 1942, while visiting friends in California, Ross heard about the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation in Burbank, which needed people with technical backgrounds. Ross found a position as an assistant to a consulting mathematician. She worked on developing fighter planes, specifically the P-38 Lightning fighter plane, the first to go more than 400 miles per hour.
Through Lockheed, she furthered her education as an engineer at the University of California with courses in aeronautical and mechanical engineering. Ross was on the ground floor of what would become “the Space Race.”
Lockheed formed its Missile Systems Division and Ross was selected as one of the first 40 employees. She was the only Native American and the only female engineer in the group. The top-secret think tank, known as the Lockheed Skunk Works, was the start of Lockheed Missiles & Space Co., which later became a major consultant to NASA. Her work focused on the performance of ballistic missiles and other defense systems. Most of the work from that group remains classified to this day. One of Ross’ key roles was as one of the authors of the “NASA Planetary Flight Handbook Vol. III,” which talks about space travel to Mars and Venus.
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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