October 07, 2009

Mary G. Ross blazed a trail in the sky as a woman engineer in the space race, celebrated museum

Mary Golda Ross 
 Photos courtesy of Mary McCarthy

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 opening of the Smithsonian's new National Museum of the American Indian. Wearing that dress of green calico, Ross joined in the procession of 25,000 Native peoples that opened the museum five years ago.  

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.   

She passed away in 2008 just three months shy of her 100th birthday. Born in 1908 on her parents' allotment in the foothills of the Ozarks, she was one year younger than the state of Oklahoma. At 16, she enrolled in Northeastern State Teachers College, which her ancestor Chief John Ross was involved in founding.  She taught science and math during the Great Depression in rural Oklahoma. By 1937 she was teaching at a school for American Indian artists in Santa Fe that would later become the Institute of American Indian Art. She pursued a master’s degree at the University of Northern Colorado, where she took every astronomy class they had.

In 1942 she was hired as a mathematician at Lockheed Corporation, and assigned to work with the engineers who were doing the pioneering research that would launch the space race.  Later Lockheed trained her to become one of the 40 engineers in 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 Native American. 

Mary Golda Ross 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 San Jose 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.

Four years before she passed away, as the National Museum of the American Indian opened, Ross knew that this was an occasion of historic importance. This forward thinking Cherokee woman who helped put an American man on the moon said, "The museum will tell the true story of the Indian—not just the story of the past, but an ongoing story."

Comments (38)

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Great Post, I love reading this stuff. I can only imagine the wealth of information this woman has for us. :)

This story is a great one indeed.

I look forward to researching more about the contributions to space engineering from people from different ethnic backgrounds! Great achievement.

Gerry Mats

Really a great women and god gave her a very long life.

I wish the major news networks paid attention to stories like this. What an amazing testament to what is possible in America, to what is possible for women, to what is possible for American Indians.

To the question "if you could have lunch with anyone in the world who would it be?", I now believe my answer would be Mary Golda Ross.

I can't imagine the amazing stories she could tell.

Dan Morris

Mary Ross was truly a "Legend in her own Time." This is an amazing article that I hope to do more research on.


Mary Ross was not only a woman before her time, she made amazing contributions to the space age.

Kathy P.

Mary Ross was a very inspiring person. Why does the news focus on such negative things when positive stories like this exist?

You would think they would want to cover great stories like this!


Very interesting article

I look forward to researching more about the contributions to space engineering from people from different ethnic backgrounds! Great achievement.

Very inspirational woman indeed. We could do with a few more of them around to get things going in the right direction again.

This post needs more press, it's a heartwarming story about how far we've come in America. It's a testament to the fact that the U. S. is truly the land of opportunity and here's proof that one can achieve anything they truly aspire to.

I never thought there is a woman in the group, she has done a great contribution to our world, amazing! So brilliant.

Hello. I wish the major news networks paid attention to stories like this. What an amazing testament to what is possible in America, to what is possible for women, to what is possible for American Indians.

Really a great woman!


With all of the bad news that is constantly in our faces these days, it is great to read a heartwarming story like this.

Outstanding article! It is really refreshing to read about a strong great person who happens to be a minority and a woman. It is shocking how rare these types of stories are in the mainstream media.

Adam - Author
Barracuda Pool Cleaner

This woman is cool and to think that she lived in an old school way. 1908? Nearly 100? Man, that is really awesome.


It is great to read about pioneers especially those who were once looked down upon. Great things happen to those who believe in themselves.

My wife and I love reading everything we can find on Mary Ross. We love reading truly inspiration stories such as these.

In fact, I wish the news would cover more of them!

Very good post!

Thanks for posting this wonderful article about Mary Ross!
worth reading.


It's amazing how much new technologies move on in space engineering.

I have been involved in ion propulsion for several years and got the great experience of having hardware fly in space.

(You can see here http://corvosastroengineering.com/articles/electric-propulsion-how-it-works-in-4-easy-steps/)

I'm sure Mary Ross liked that feeling that what she did was out there working!

This woman is a inspiration. To be at that position at that time. America was really smart to use all the people with brains they had. That's why the war was won. Amazing story, really of this woman.


It's so tricky to get priceless info on the web. Thank god, I've identified your webpage. I loved reading your story. I think you supply helpful info. Congratulations, and constantly posting to us.

Unquestionably a great inspiring woman. I enjoyed reading your post. Thank you for sharing it with us.

That is just an amazing story.

I wish we all come to that age—100 almost.

Thank you.

It’s indeed a great story, after reading this it motivates me to do more researching about space engineering. She is truly a Legend in her own Time! God bless her.

great post..
try to visit Hawaii

I would really like to give her a credit, since her acheivments are really appreciable.

Well said! The standing ovation came as a surprise, however.

The post is very useful,it helps me a lot, this is the thing that people really want to know, thanks for sharing.


nice post, thank you.

What an incredible engineer.

So the museum opened in 2002?

Kepler 22 Fan: The National Museum of the American Indian in Washington opened on September 21, 2004. The museum's George Gustav Heye Center, a gallery and program space in New York City, opened in 1994.

I was in DC when the museum opened. Wow! What an event. I am so glad we took the time to honor and pay tribute to these great americans!

Congrats to Mary G Ross for her achievements. It's really a big step forward for women.


In my eyes Mary Ross was a very inspiring person!

Great item to read, thanks for publishing it!

Can't believe she is now 96. How wonderful and great she is, a briliant woman scientist.

With all of the bad news that is constantly in our faces these days, it is great to read a heartwarming story like this.

September 25, 2009

Reflections on a living memorial


On warm afternoons and early evenings outside the National Museum of the American Indian, people gather. Some sit on the low walls built around the museum’s Welcome Plaza talking, while children play. Some read books. Others examine the boulders gathered from the four corners of the Western Hemisphere for this landscape.


Who are they? Travelers most likely, making what for many will be a once in a life time trip to the Smithsonian Institution’s museums. People of all backgrounds congregate, shaded by native shrubbery and tall trees. A fountain and a wetland cool the air.


Five years ago when the National Museum of the American Indian opened its building in Washington, D.C., most of the young plantings were too small to provide much shade. The marvel that sunny day was the Native peoples who came by planes, trains and even old pick up trucks to the opening. Some 80,000 joined in a procession on the National Mall that morning of Sept. 21, 2004.


Another anniversary comes to mind when speaking of people and the American Indian museum.


It is the 1989 Congressional act which established the museum. Public Law 101-185 states, “There is established, within the Smithsonian Institution, a living memorial to Native Americans and their traditions which shall be known as the ‘National Museum of the America Indian.’” 


In a city filled with memorials for fallen heroes and founding fathers, the idea of memorializing the living is startling. But if books and exhibitions once routinely treated living Indian nations as historic, maybe memorial is the right word. But a memorial turned on its head. Instead of a memorial for the past, a memorial for the living.


In five years since the museum on the mall opened, and 15 since the National Museum of the American Indian in New York City opened, Indian peoples are alive in this museum. They are alive in the steady stream of artists, performers, writers, curators, language keepers, cultural interpreters, thinkers, researchers, visitors and school children who enter the doors. They are alive in the arts and materials in the collection, whether the artists are contemporary or ancient. 


Hospitality, a value across indigenous cultures, is abundantly on display among visitors who start up conversations inside the grand Potomac Atrium or families who find rest outdoors as they sit side by side, listening to the wild birds which inhabit the landscape.    

Comments (9)

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This is a place where I often go to reflect.

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hmm good deal

This is a place where I often go to reflect.

Very interesting stuff!


Great! very interesting and informative. Please keep it up.

This is a place where I often go to reflect.

Keep up the good work!