Thursday, August 9, 2018

Mary Golda Ross, mathematician, aerospace engineer and the Space Race

Mary Golda Ross, linocut handprinted on Japanese kozo paper, 11" x 14", 2018 by Ele Willoughby
Today would have been Mary Golda Ross' 110 birthday. Known as Gold to her family, Mary Golda Ross (1908-2008) was a mathematician, aeronautical engineer, philanthropist and Cherokee “hidden figure” of the space race. Great-great-granddaughter of Chief John Ross, longest-serving chief of the Cherokee Nation who was forced to lead his people on the long march known as Trail of Tears, Ross attributed her success in math to the Cherokee tradition of encouraging equal education for boys and girls. She went to Northeastern State Teacher’s College in Tahlequah, Oklahoma and earned a bachelor’s in math by the time she was 20. She taught science and math in rural schools through the Depression then got her Master’s at the University of Colorado, taking the opportunity to also take as many astronomy classes as she could. She aimed to put her education to work to try to help Indigenous people by working as a statistician with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, until she was reassigned as an advisor to girls at the Santa Fe Indian School.

When WWII broke out her father suggested she find a technical job in California. Lockheed Martin hired her as mathematician in 1942, troubleshooting the P-38 Lighting fighter plane (as shown). She knew already that her interest was in interplanetary flight, but didn’t mention it in 1942 for fear that her credibility would be questioned. As it turned out, she was indeed farsighted. After the war Lockheed Martin sent her to UCLA to study engineering and celestial mechanics. She was one of the 40 engineers selected to start Skunk Works, their Advanced Development Program, an in-house top-secret think tank. She was the only woman and only Indigenous person and much of her work there remains classified! The engineers were working long hours, often to 11 pm at night, during the rush of the Space Race. Some of her work included
feasibility studies of ballistic missile and other defense systems. More interesting to me is her work on the pressure from ocean surface waves would effect submarine-launched vehicles; the effect of pressure from ocean surface waves on the seafloor was central to my own doctoral research. She worked on preliminary design concepts for interplanetary travel, crewed and uncrewed space flights and the earliest plans for orbiting satellites. She worked on the Agena rocket, so important to the Apollo moon mission (shown in my portrait), the Polaris reentry vehicle and was an author of the NASA Flight Handbook Vol. III about flight to Mars and Venus.

After retiring in 1973, she devoted her time to recruiting and mentoring women and Indigenous people to engineering. At 96 she participated in the opening ceremony for the National Museum of the American Indian, wearing her first traditional Cherokee dress made by her niece, and she left the museum $400,000 upon her death.


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What's My Line? - Andy Griffith; Jack Lemmon [panel] (Jun 22, 1958)

Mary G. Ross, wikipedia, accessed July 11, 2018

Ariel Sandburg, Remembering Mary Golda Ross, The Michigan Engineer News Center, June 14, 2017

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Kara Briggs, Cherokee rocket scientist leaves heavenly gift, Cherokee Pheonix, 12/18/2008 07:22 AM

Jenny Howard, Meet Mary Golda Ross, one of the First Native Americans in Engineering,, May 17, 2018, accessed July 11, 2018

"Mary G. Ross blazed a trail in the sky as a woman engineer in the space race, celebrated museum". The National Museum of the American Indian. 2009-10-07. Retrieved July 11, 2018

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"Mary Golda "GOLD" Ross (1908 - 2008)". Find A Grave Memorial. Retrieved July 11, 2018.