Innovative Spirit

This Little-Known Math Genius Helped America Reach the Stars

A hidden figure during her lifetime, it’s time for Mary Golda Ross to be remembered as an aerospace pioneer

Ad Astra per Astra by America Meredith (National Museum of the American Indian)
smithsonian.com

In 1958, a woman stumped the panelists on “What’s My Line?” It took the actors Arlene Francis and Jack Lemmon, journalist Dorothy Kilgallen and publisher Bennet Cerf, celebrity panelists of the popular television game show, quite a while to figure out her M.O.

When they finally discovered what she did, the show’s host admitted that he, himself, was surprised by her occupation. The panel consisted of the stars of the day, but it was Mary Golda Ross who helped people reach them as the first female engineer at an elite, top-secret think tank. 

Ross’s gender alone made her a hidden figure in the world of early spaceflight. But something else the panelists didn’t know about Ross was her Native American heritage.

Her great-great grandfather, John Ross, was the longest-serving chief of the Cherokee Nation. During his tenure, he fought to preserve his nation from white settlers’ incursions—and later was forced to lead his people along the march that became known as the Trail of Tears. 

That history helped shape the trajectory of Ross’s extraordinary career. Born in 1908, Ross grew up in Park Hill, Oklahoma, the Cherokee community where her ancestor and other members of the Cherokee Nation settled after their forced removal. Despite her ancestral roots and the fact that her father spoke the Cherokee language, her family downplayed her cultural heritage.

A mentor to others, Mary Ross (above, in 1993 presenting a Society of Women Engineers certificate to Akiko Inoue) was reluctant to accept awards and when she did, she made sure to credit her coworkers. (Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University)

Only later in life did she reconnect with her Native American roots, mentoring and supporting others in her field and calling attention to her heritage. In 2004, Ross was there to usher in a new era—that of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. Wearing ancestral dress, she walked in the procession of Native peoples that opened the museum, and left a bequest of more than $400,000 to the museum upon her death in 2008. 

After graduating from Northeastern State College with a math degree, she decided to put her skills to work on behalf of other Native Americans, working first as a statistician for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and then at a Native American boarding school in New Mexico. 

Math always called Ross’s name, and in 1942, armed with a master’s degree, she joined Lockheed Aircraft Corporation. As World War II raged, the company was working on new military aircraft. Ross helped them troubleshoot the P-38 Lightning, a fighter plane that came close to breaking the sound barrier and that engineers worried would collapse during dives. (Thanks to the work of Ross and her fellow mathematicians and engineers, Lockheed eventually realized that their fears were unfounded.) 

After the war ended, Lockheed sent Ross to UCLA to earn a classification in aeronautical engineering and slowly, she began to progress through the company’s male-dominated ranks. “She worked with a lot of guys with slide rules and pocket protectors,” says Jeff Rhodes, Lockheed Martin’s historian and the editor of Code One magazine. “The stereotype was real.” 

Women had always been a part of Lockheed Martin, says Rhodes. Nonetheless, when Ross was recruited to join Skunk Works, the company’s then-top-secret think tank, she was the only woman aside from the secretary. 

But Ross was undaunted—and exhilarated by the chance to use her mathematic and engineering skills to make theory into reality. “I was the pencil pusher, doing a lot of research,” she told an interviewer in 1994. “My state of the art tools were a slide rule and a Friden computer.” 

The tools of the trade may have been primitive, but Ross’s sharp intellect quickly earned the respect of her male colleagues. “I would unhesitatingly place her in the top 10% of engineers of my acquaintance,” wrote a colleague in the 1960s. “She was just one of the guys,” another told Indian Country Media Network’s Kara Briggs in 2008. “She was as smart as the rest of them and she held her own.” 

Ross had a heavy-duty workload in the chilliest part of the Cold War and, like so many other aerospace engineers of her day, set to work turning a career in aviation to one in space technology. “The space race came right on the heels of the missile race,” says Michael Neufeld, a curator of space history at the National Air and Space Museum, home to an Agena B—a spacecraft that shot the United States’ secret CORONA spy satellite into orbit—and on view at the museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia.

Spaceflight made use of missile advances originally developed for military purposes—like the Agena. Ross helped develop operational requirements for the spacecraft, which later became a vital part of the Apollo program. Over the years, she helped write NASA’s Planetary Flight Handbook, the agency’s comprehensive guide to space travel, and worked on preliminary concepts for flights to Mars and Venus, laying the groundwork for missions that haven’t yet come to fruition. 

Much of Ross’s work will never be known because it was—and still is—classified. This frustrated the engineer, who couldn’t answer questions on “What’s My Line?” about some aspects of her work and who later told an interviewer that her work with NASA “was a lot more fun since you could talk about it.” But Ross’s own diffidence and her belief in collaboration also kept her work in the shadows. She was reluctant to accept awards and when she did, she made sure to credit her coworkers. 

That didn’t stop her from occasionally claiming the spotlight. Today, Ross’ legacy is a bit less secretive. Her face graces a sculpture at Buffalo State College and a painting by Cherokee artist America Meredith that shows her against a starry, rocket-filled sky is now in the collections of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. Entitled Ad Astra per Astra, meaning to the stars from the stars (a play on the Latin phrase "per aspera ad astra "), references a Cherokee origin story of how humans arrived on Earth from the Pleiades. Packed with symbolism—a seven-pointed star references the Seven Sisters constellation, the seven clans of the Cherokee and the seven directions in Cherokee cosmology—the portrait also includes a depiction of the Agena spacecraft. 

But viewers have to judge which of her legacies is larger: the Agena-B on display at the Smithsonian or the generations of women who have now tread the road she paved as one of her industry’s first female—and Native American—pioneers. 

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