The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture
ROSS, MARY GOLDA (1908‒2008).
Scholars claim that Mary Golda Ross was the first American Indian woman aerospace engineer and the first female engineer to work for Lockheed Aircraft Company. Born on August 9, 1908, in Park Hill, Oklahoma, she was the daughter of William Wallace Ross, Jr., and Mary Henrietta Moore Ross and the great-great-granddaughter of prominent Cherokee Chief John Ross. As an intelligent young girl, she was sent to live with her grandparents who lived in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, for education in the Cherokee Nation’s best primary and secondary schools. At age sixteen, she enrolled in Northeastern State Teachers College (now Northeastern State University) at Tahlequah. In 1928 she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics. Ross continued her education at Colorado State Teachers College in Greeley, attaining a master’s degree in 1938. Her major fields of study at that educational institution included astronomy and mathematics.
Mary Golda Ross started her career teaching science and mathematics in rural Oklahoma schools, including Barnsdall High School. After taking the civil service examination in 1936, she worked as a statistician for the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) in Washington, D.C. One year later the BIA sent hers to New Mexico as an advisor to girls living at the Santa Fe Indian School. In 1941 her father advised her to move to California to seek work. Lockheed Aircraft Company hired her as a mathematician in 1942. While studying the effects of pressure on the Lockheed P-38 Lightning, Ross solved design issues with the aircraft. Lockheed retained her after World War II, which was unusual because women were expected to return home so that service men could be gainfully employed.
Circa 1944 Lockheed sent Ross to the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) to attain certification in engineering. At UCLA she studied “‘mathematics for modern engineering, aeronautics and missile and celestial mechanics.’” That education prepared her to work on Lockheed’s Advanced Development Program at the secret Skunk Works and on the Agena rocket project. Both programs involved design concepts for earth-orbiting flights and interplanetary missions to Venus and Mars. By the 1960s she worked as a senior advanced systems staff engineer, occupied with the Polaris reentry vehicle and the Poseidon and Trident Missiles. She played an important role in authoring the NASA (National Aeronautics and Science Administration) Planetary Flight Handbook, volume three, detailing space travel to Venus and Mars.
Mary Golda Ross retired in 1973 and continued to live in Los Altos, California, until her death on April 29, 2008. She was buried in Ross Cemetery, Park Hill, Oklahoma. During her retirement years, she recruited young women and American Indian youth into engineering careers. She was a charter member of the Society of Women Engineers as well as a supporter of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society and the Council of Energy Resource Tribes. In 2004, at the age of ninety-six, she wore a traditional Cherokee dress to the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. At her death she left a $400,000 endowment to the museum.
In 1992 Mary Golda Ross was inducted into the Silicon Valley Engineering Council Hall of Fame. In 2011 Oklahoma Cherokee artist America Meredith painted Ross’s portrait, which is displayed in the National Museum of the American Indian, Washington, D.C. In May 2018 the Oklahoma City School Board renamed Jackson Enterprise Elementary School to Mary Golda Ross Middle School. In June 2019 the U.S. Mint issued a Native American one-dollar coin featuring Ross. In April 2022 a statue of Ross, created by the Brooklyn, New York based StudioEIS, was unveiled at the First Americans Museum in Oklahoma City.
The Oklahoman (Oklahoma City), 15 May 2018, 13 December 2020, and 24 April 2022.
Traci Sorell and Natasha Donovan, Classified: The Secret Career of Mary Golda Ross, Cherokee Aerospace Engineer (Minneapolis, Minn.: Millbrook Press, 2021). Tulsa (Oklahoma) World, 2 September 2018.
Herman Viola, “Mary Golda Ross: She Reached for the Stars,” National Museum of the American Indian 19 (Winter 2018).
Who’s Who of American Women (Chicago: A. N. Marquis Co., 1967).
Linda Zierdt-Warshaw, Alan Winkler, and Leonard Bernstein, American Women in Technology: An Encyclopedia (Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2000).
The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Linda D. Wilson, “Ross, Mary Golda,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry?entry=RO041.
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