WASHINGTON – 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, biography in brief
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 BIA 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 American Indian. 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 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.”
Hill remembers her calling him in her later years as awards and honors came her way.
“She’d say, ‘Should I take this?’” Hill remembered, “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.”