Cherokee rocket scientist leaves NMAI
Washington D.C.: When she
was 96 years old, Mary Golda Ross asked her niece to make her
something very special: the first traditional Cherokee dress that
Ross, the great-great-granddaughter of renowned Chief John Ross,
would ever own.
Because Ross, after a lifetime of high-flying achievement as one of
the nation’s most prominent women scientists of the space age,
wanted to wear her ancestral dress to the 2004 opening of the
Smithsonian’s new National Museum of the American Indian.
Last month, the museum received notice of a generous bequest from
Mary G. Ross, who died in April, only three months shy of her 100th
Wearing that dress of green calico, Ross joined in the procession of
25,000 Native people who opened the museum. Now her gift, invested
in the museum’s endowment, will help perpetuate the cultural and
educational mission of the National Museum of the American Indian.
“She gave to endowment because endowment perpetuates itself,” her
niece and executor Evelyn Ross McMillan said. “She was a
mathematician, and she knew if you gave a large scholarship it would
be gone in a year. But if you gave to endowment, the principal would
continue to give.”
Ross was born in 1908 on her parents’ allotment near Park Hill. At
16, she enrolled in Northeastern State Teachers College, which Chief
John Ross was involved in founding.
She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1928 and taught math and
science for nine years in nearby high schools.
She was hired as a mathematician with Lockheed Corporation in 1942.
In 1952, she was asked to be one of 40 engineers in what became
known as the Lockheed Skunk Works, a super-secret think tank. It was
the start of Lockheed Missiles & Space Co., a major consultant to
NASA. Ross was 45, the only woman and the only Native American.
Her Lockheed team’s top-secret project?
“Preliminary design concepts for interplanetary space travel, manned
and unmanned earth-orbiting flights, the earliest studies of
orbiting satellites for both defense and civilian purposes,”
columnist Leigh Weimers wrote in the Mercury News in 1994.
Most of the theories and papers that emerged from the group,
including those by Ross, are still classified.
Her friend, Cara Cowan Watts, an engineer and elected legislator of
the Cherokee Nation, has said, “Just think, a Cherokee woman from
Park Hill helped put an American on the moon.”
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