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 opening of the Smithsonian's new National Museum of the American Indian. Wearing that dress of green calico, Ross joined in the procession of 25,000 Native peoples that opened the museum five years ago.
Mary G. Ross—whose Cherokee lineage includes leaders and teachers and who herself now figures in the lineage as the Cherokee rocket scientist—spent her century of life looking mostly into the future.
She passed away in 2008 just three months shy of her 100th birthday. Born in 1908 on her parents' allotment in the foothills of the Ozarks, she was one year younger than the state of Oklahoma. At 16, she enrolled in Northeastern State Teachers College, which her ancestor Chief John Ross was involved in founding. She taught science and math during the Great Depression in rural Oklahoma. By 1937 she was teaching at a school for American Indian artists in Santa Fe that would later become the Institute of American Indian Art. She pursued a master’s degree at the University of Northern Colorado, where she took every astronomy class they had.
In 1942 she was hired as a mathematician at Lockheed Corporation, and assigned to work with the engineers who were doing the pioneering research that would launch the space race. Later Lockheed trained her to become one of the 40 engineers in known as the Lockheed Skunk Works, a super-secret think tank led by legendary aeronautics engineer Clarence "Kelly" Johnson. It was the start of Lockheed Missiles & Space Co., a major consultant to NASA based in Sunnyvale, Calif. 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 San Jose Mercury News in 1994.
"Often at night there were four of us working until 11 p.m.," Ross recalled in the article. "I was the pencil pusher, doing a lot of research. My state of the art tools were a slide rule and a Frieden computer."
Most of the theories and papers that emerged from the group, including those by Ross, are still classified. As she told her alma mater's newspaper in the 1990s, "We were taking the theoretical and making it real." One of Ross' seminal roles was as one of the authors of the NASA Planetary Flight Handbook Vol. III, about space travel to Mars and Venus.
Four years before she passed away, as the National Museum of the American Indian opened, Ross knew that this was an occasion of historic importance. This forward thinking Cherokee woman who helped put an American man on the moon said, "The museum will tell the true story of the Indian—not just the story of the past, but an ongoing story."