Google Honors Cherokee Engineer of the Space Age, Mary G. Ross

Today’s Google Doodle pays tribute to a Cherokee engineer who played a pivotal role in developing the technology that gave birth to the American space program. Google commemorates Mary Golda Ross, the first female Native American engineer, on August 9, her 110th birthday. Her portrait is depicted over a blueprint of the Agena rocket that she helped to design — a critical step in the Apollo program to put a man on the moon.

Ross was among 40 members of Lockheed’s renowned and highly secretive ”Skunk Works” team. The majority of Ross’ projects for the think tank, founded in 1952, remain classified today. The only woman on the Skunk Works team aside from the secretary, Ross reportedly worked on preliminary design concepts for interplanetary space travel, and earth-orbiting flights and satellites.

“Often, at night, there were four of us working until 11 p.m.,” said Ross, who additionally co-authored Nasa’s Planetary Flight Handbook. “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.”

Ross served as a mathematician at Lockheed Aircraft Corporation from 1942 until her retirement in 1973. Revered by colleagues, a manager at Lockheed said of Ross, “I would unhesitatingly place her in the top 10 percent of engineers of my acquaintance and professional knowledge,” according to the Society of Women Engineers, which has offered a scholarship in her name since 1992.

The great-granddaughter of the 19th century Cherokee Chief John Ross, Ross retired from Lockheed in 1973 and became an ambassador for Native Americans. She served on the Council of Energy Resource Tribes and the American Indian and Science and Engineering Society, encouraging women and Natives to go after careers in the STEM field.

Ross also helped to open The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, which debuted four years before she passed. When she walked on at age 99 in April 2008, Ross left a $400,000 donation behind to the Smithsonian. “The museum will tell the true story of the Indian—not just the story of the past, but an ongoing story,” she previously said, the Smithsonian reported. Along the museum’s most treasured art is an oil portrait of Ross admiring a satellite in the night sky, by Cherokee artist America Meredith.

“I was brought up in the Cherokee tradition of equal education for boys and girls,” said Ross, who attended primary and secondary school while residing with her grandparents in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, capital of the Cherokee Nation.

At the age of 16, Ross enrolled in Northeastern State Teachers’ College in Tahlequah, going on to earn her bachelor’s degree in mathematics in 1928, at age 20. That’s when she began her first career as a high school teacher in rural Oklahoma during the Great Depression. She transitioned to serve as a civil servant with the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C, before pursuing her master’s degree. She graduated from the Colorado State Teachers College in Greeley in 1938, taking “every astronomy class they had,” reported the National Museum of the American Indian. It was after the conclusion of World War II that Lockheed encouraged her to attend UCLA for a professional certification in engineering while maintaining her role at Lockheed — an unusual referral for a woman at the time.

Ross’ trailblazing success remains impressive for a female Native American today. According to the National Science Foundation, only 0.2 percent of those working in science and engineering are American Indians. Roughly 0.1 percent are female and American Indian. And according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, female, employed aerospace engineers only account for 8.1 percent of that industry.

“The Ross family is excited that Google has chosen Mary G. Ross for a Doodle on her 110th birthday,” Jeff Ross, Mary G. Ross’ nephew, told Google. “A proud Cherokee woman and the great-great granddaughter of Chief John Ross, Mary is an excellent role model for young women and American Indians everywhere. Her accomplishments are a testament to her determination and love for education. Our hope as a family is that her story inspires young people to pursue a technical career and better the world through science.”