Mary G. Ross: Who was the trailblazing Native American aviation engineer?

Google Doodle honours mathematician and research scientist known for work on missile systems, satellites and interplanetary space travel

Joe Sommerlad
Thursday 09 August 2018 20:16 BST
US engineer Mary G. Ross appears on TV show What's My Line?

A trailblazing engineer and mathematician known for the crucial role in developing the technology that launched the American space program, Mary Golda Ross was born 110 years ago today.

As a mathematician at the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation, Ross was tasked with researching the effects of atmospheric pressure on P-38 Lightning fighter planes as they approached the sound barrier just after America had entered the Second World War.

The subject of the latest Google Doodle, later became better known for her preliminary designs for interplanetary space travel and manned and unmanned earth-orbiting craft.

A stalwart of the Society of Women Engineers, it began offering a scholarship in her name in 1992.

But while she remains revered in her field, her roots were humble.

Born in Park Hill, Oklahoma, on 9 August 1908, Ross was the great-granddaughter of the 19th century Cherokee chief John Ross. She would later become a much-admired ambassador for the Native American community.

“I was brought up in the Cherokee tradition of equal education for boys and girls,” she said of her time at school in Tahlequah, capital of the Cherokee Nation in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains.

She attended Northeastern State Teachers’ College in Tahlequah at 16 and earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics aged 20, before embarking on a career as a high school teacher in rural Oklahoma during the Great Depression and working as a civil servant with the US Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, DC.

In 1938, she completed her master’s degree at Colorado State Teachers College in Greeley. It was there that she developed a fascination with astronomy.

“Math was more fun than anything else. It was always a game to me,” she later recalled. “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.

“To function efficiently in today’s world, 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.”

Ross joined Lockheed in Burbank, California, in 1942, where she completed additional aeronautical and mechanical courses at UCLA in tandem with her work on high-speed fighter jets.

She was studying the feasibility and performance of defence missile and satellite systems and later became one of the 40 founder members of the company’s ”Skunk Works” team, assigned to secret projects.

She co-authored Nasa’s Planetary Flight Handbook at this time and analysed theory on Mars fly-bys. Much of her work in this field remains classified.

“Often at night there were four of us working until 11pm,” she said of her time at Lockheed. “I was the pencil pusher, doing a lot of research. My state of the art tools were a slide rule and a Friden computer. We were taking the theoretical and making it real.”

Regarded as “one of the boys”, she retired from Lockheed in 1973, working thereafter to improve the lives of Native Americans on the Council of Energy Resource Tribes and the American Indian and Science and Engineering Society.

She died aged 99 in Los Altos, California, in April 2008, leaving behind a $400,000 (£310,000) donation to The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, which she had helped open three years earlier.

One of the museum’s prize exhibits is an oil portrait of Ms Ross by Cherokee artist America Meredith, looking out on a satellite in the night sky.

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