Revealing Another Hidden Figure
Meet Mary Golda Ross, the first Native American aerospace engineer. (1908-2008)
She learned to read at 3, listening to her father teach her older sister. But it was arithmetic that rocketed this woman into the history books!
More basic, it was the Cherokee commitment to equal opportunity education at a time when most girls were not expected to go to college or have a career outside the home.
Mary was born in Oklahoma on her parents allotment in the foothill the Ozarks. Her great-great-grandfather was a Cherokee Chief, who lead his people over the Trail of Tears.
"Even in the days before women's liberation, the role of Cherokee women has never been a subservient one," Mary said. "Women held high positions in early Cherokee tribal councils, where their advice was heeded not only on matters of policy, but also concerning war strategy."
Mary graduated from high school at 16, and teacher's college at 18. Teaching high school and taking college classes during the summer, Mary earned a master's degree in mathematics.
"[I] didn’t mind being the only girl in math class. Math, chemistry and physics were more fun to study than any other subject,” Mary said.
"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.”
When WWII broke out, the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation was looking for mathematicians to help resolve problems with the P-38 Lightning fighter plane. Mary applied and was hired.
The P-38 could climb and it doubled as an long-range threat, carrying a larger payload than early B-17s with a range of 1,150 miles. But in a dive, the fighter could destabilize resulting in the deaths of a test pilot and an undetermined number of men who flew the aircraft in combat.
Part of a team working in secrecy, Mary helped fix issues with the P-38 and went on to a career at Lockheed.
She was one of the founding members of Skunk Works, a super-secret think tank that became Lockheed Missiles & Space Co, and worked with NASA on the Apollo program, the Polaris reentry vehicle, and interplanetary space probes.
Much of the work of that Lockheed group, including theories and papers by Ross, remain classified.
In the early 1960s, Mary told a reporter she believed women would make great astronauts.
But she said, “I’d rather stay down here and analyze the data.” She offered some great advice for young women, “To function efficiently, you need math. The world is so technical, if you plan to work in it, a math background will let you go farther and faster.”
One of Mary's accomplishments was as an author of the NASA Planetary Flight Handbook Vol. III dealing with space travel to Mars and Venus.
After retiring in 1973, Mary worked to recruit young women and Native American youth into engineering careers.
Though she once mentioned one of her few regrets was spending so much of her life apart from Indian people, upon her death, the Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, Chad Smith said, “The accomplishments of Mary Golda Ross epitomize the Cherokee spirit. Her ambition and successes exemplify the importance of education and are evidence of the doors that can be opened through higher learning.”
Mary Golda Ross died in 2008 at 100 years of age. Now don't you think she deserves a movie about her?
Reminder: I'm giving away copies of Fannie Never Flinched in celebration of Women's History Month. And that's not all! Find out all about the prizes and how to enter here...
I'm fascinated to discover little-known history, stories of people and events that provide a new perspective on why and how things happened, new voices that haven't been heard, insight into how the past brought us here today, and how it might guide us to a better future.
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