American engineer Mary G. Ross (1908-2008) was an aerospace engineer who made notable contributions to spaceflight and ballistic missile technology. She was part of the original engineering team at Lockheed's Missile Systems Division, where she worked on a number of defense systems, and contributed to the Apollo program, the Polaris reentry vehicle, and interplanetary space probes.
Born in Oklahoma in 1908, Ross took pride in her heritage as a Cherokee Indian. Her great-great-grandfather, John Ross, was the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation between 1828 and 1866. Ross later remarked that she had been brought up in the Cherokee tradition of equal education for both boys and girls. She was, however, the only girl in her math class, which did not seem to bother her. Indeed, her early interests were math, physics, and science.
Armed with these interests and a sense of purpose, Ross graduated from high school at the age of 16. She attended Northeastern State Teachers College, graduating in 1928 at the age of 20. After graduating from college, Ross taught mathematics and science for nine and a half years in public schools. She also served as a girls' advisor at a Pueblo and Navajo school.
Ross also returned to school herself, this time to Colorado State Teachers College (now the University of Northern Colorado at Greeley), where she graduated with a master's degree in mathematics in 1938.
With the growth of the aviation industry in the early part of World War II, Ross found a position in 1942 as an assistant to a consulting mathematician with Lockheed Aircraft Corporation in Burbank, California. Her early work at Lockheed involved engineering problems having to do with transport and fighter aircraft. Meanwhile, with the support of Lockheed, Ross continued her education at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), where she took courses in aeronautical and mechanical engineering.
When Lockheed formed its Missiles Systems Division in 1954, it selected Mary Ross to be one of the first 40 employees. She was the only female engineer among them. As the American missile program matured, Ross found herself researching and evaluating feasibility and performance of ballistic missile and other defense systems. She also studied the distribution of pressure caused by ocean waves and how it affected submarine-launched vehicles.
Her work in 1958 concentrated on satellite orbits and the Agena series of rockets that played so prominent a role in the Apollo moon program during the 1960s. As an advanced systems engineer, Ross worked on the Polaris reentry vehicle and engineering systems for manned space flights. Before her retirement from Lockheed in 1973, Ross undertook research on flyby space probes that would study Mars and Venus.
Teaching and Advocacy
After Ross retired, she continued her interests in engineering by delivering lectures to high school and college groups, encouraging young women and Native American youths to train for technical careers.
Ross authored a number of classified publications relating to her work in national defense and received several awards during her career. A charter member of the Los Angeles chapter of the Society of Women Engineers since 1952, Ross has received a number of honors. In 1961, she garnered the San Francisco Examiner's award for Woman of Distinction and the Woman of Achievement Award from the California State Federation of Business and Professional Clubs.
Ross was elected a fellow and life member of the Society of Women Engineers, whose Santa Clara Valley Section established a scholarship in her name. She has also been the recipient of achievement awards from the American Indian Science and Engineering Society and from the Council of Energy Resource Tribes. In 1992, she was inducted into the Silicon Valley Engineering Hall of Fame.
Mary Ross passed away on April 29, 2008 at the age of 99. She left a $400,000 bequest to the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.
Further Reading on Mary G. Ross
In addition to her own written work, the referenced source can provide even more information on Mary G. Ross.
Ross, Mary G., Interview with Karl Preuss, conducted February 14, 1994.
Updates by Matt Salter