Mary Golda Ross: Mathematician, engineer and inspiration

A portrait of Mary Golda Ross titled “Ad Astra Per Astra” by America Meredith.

TAHLEQUAH – In 1958, a Cherokee woman from Los Altos, California, appeared on the television game show “What’s My Line” and stumped panelists who attempted to guess her occupation. They wondered what relation she had to rockets and missiles.

Mary Golda Ross became a national icon for Cherokees and women for her work as the first Native American aerospace engineer.

Ross was born in 1908 in Park Hill, and is the great-great granddaughter of Principal Chief John Ross. At 16, she was enrolled at Northeastern State Teacher’s College in Tahlequah. She graduated in 1928 with a mathematics degree and later taught math and science for a few years, according a National Museum of the American Indian Newservice article.

In 1938, she earned her master’s degree in mathematics at the University of Northern Colorado, according to an “Engineer Extraordinaire” profile. At the same time, she was working as a girls’ advisor at a boarding school in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

While earning her master’s degree, Ross studied the stars in astronomy classes, and in 1942, she put her skills to work and answered the call for a mathematician at Lockheed Aircraft Corporation in California in the midst of World War II, according to the NMAI.

At Lockheed, Ross started out consulting on projects for a new type of airplane called the P-38 Lightning fighter plane. As the war progressed and ended, Ross was asked to stay on as an engineer, taking extension courses at the University of California-Los Angeles to earn a professional certification in engineering, and studied mathematics for modern engineering, aeronautics and missile and celestial mechanics, according to the NMAI.

When the space race began, Ross became the first woman engineer among a team of 40 engineers to work in the top-secret Lockheed Skunk Works program in 1952.

“It was this missiles system groups research that led to preliminary design concepts of interplanetary space travel, manned and unmanned earth-orbiting flights, and other state of the advances in aerospace development,” states a Society of Women Engineers biography.

In a Lockheed recruitment campaign, her work was described as “crucial” to the Agena rocket project.

“She established major technical and operational requirements, providing data critical to the spaceship’s design. The versatile Agena recorded a number of space flight firsts, and was an essential step in the Apollo program to land on the moon. It marked a critical leap for America’s space program. And for that, Lockheed and the nation owe much to Mary Ross and her fellow engineers,” states a former Lockheed campaign.

Ross retired from Lockheed in 1973 and continued to be an inspiration even after her death in 2008, just a few months shy of her 100th birthday.

“Mary Golda Ross embodies what our Cherokee people and culture are known for – using your gifts and education in service to others,” Cherokee author Traci Sorell said. “She took her whole self into spaces occupied primarily by white men at the time transformed them. She paved the way for so many women and Native people in STEM fields because of that.”

Sorell was inspired to write a book on Ross and her many achievements, weaving Cherokee values into the written biography.

“If you read Mary’s last interview…she refers to those values, her education and her aptitude in math as the reasons for her success as an aerospace engineer,” Sorell said. “Aerospace engineering wasn’t even a major in college at the time. It was a developing field, and Mary was right there in the middle of all the groundbreaking work being done. I love that and find it so incredible.”