HBD To Mary G. Ross, The Engineer Who Broke Barriers On Gender, Race, And To Space — From Burbank

Mary G. Ross. (Photo via Google, courtesy Evelyn Ross McMillan)

Mary G. Ross earned her aeronautical engineering certification at UCLA in 1949 — then used that as one of the founding members of the ultra-secret Skunk Works think-tank in Burbank. And she did all that as a Cherokee before the civil rights legislation of the 1960s.

Google's honoring Ross, the nation's first female Native American engineer, in today's Google Doodle. Today would have been her 110th birthday — she died in April 2008, just months before her 100th birthday.

She broke barriers from the beginning. She told an interviewer that she "didn't mind being the only girl in math class. Math, chemistry and physics were more fun to study than any other subject." Her background helped with that: "I was brought up in the Cherokee tradition of equal education for boys and girls."

She went from being a math teacher to getting her master's. Her dad encouraged her to look for work in California when World War II broke out, and she started work at defense contractor Lockheed Aircraft in 1942 as a mathematician.

"There wasn't much use for my technical training at the school, but the war was on, and my friends told me what Lockheed was doing with people with my technical education," Ross told the San Jose Mercury News.

Her early work was on research around the P-38 fighter plane and what happened as it reached the sound barrier. A manager saw her talent and encouraged her to pursue becoming an engineer, which led her to get her certification at UCLA.

"We were taking the theoretical and making it real," Ross said of her own groundbreaking work. "My state of the art tools were a slide rule and a Frieden computer."

Ross worked at Skunk Works on planning missions to Mars, Venus, and other parts of the Solar System — though a lot of her work remains classified. She developed designs, including for satellites like the Agent rocket, which you can see in today's Google Doodle.

Her work was remarkable — in a recommendation from her manager to the Society of Women Engineers, P.B. Weiser wrote, "I would unhesitatingly place her in the top 10% of engineers of my acquaintance and professional knowledge."

She even wrote the third volume of the NASA Planetary Flight Handbook, which projected the future of space travel for 40 years. She worked on projects including developing the Poseidon and Trident missiles.

She was also the only woman at Skunk Works — other than the secretary. She went on to pay all of her success forward, encouraging women and Native Americans to pursue STEM fields.

Ross founded the Los Angeles chapter of the Society of Women Engineers. She said that she'd always wanted to be one of the women behind the first woman in space, and she was.

"Our hope as a family is that her story inspires young people to pursue a technical career and better the world through science," Ross's nephew Jeff Ross told Google.

Her legacy includes a scholarship in her name that supports female engineers and technologists, including one of Google's own engineers, Aditi Jain. You can donate to the Mary G. Ross Scholarship fund here.

It's a legacy that has an important impact, with women still making up only 11 percent of employed aerospace engineers. Female American Indians are only 0.1 percent of those employees in science and engineering.

Ross was described in a 1959 newspaper article as "a soft-spoken lady engineer with a warm smile" — who "aids in missile research."

If you want a little sense of what she was like, check her out on game show What's My Line? in 1958. It's a game show where panelists had to guess someone's profession — and no one could guess that a woman like Ross worked in aeronautics back in the 1950s.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the fighter plane Ross contributed to. LAist regrets the error.


News happens every day. Here at LAist, our goal is to cover the stories that matter to you and the community you live in. Now that we're part of KPCC, those stories (including this one you're on right now!) are made possible by generous people like you. Independent, local journalism isn't cheap, but with your support we can keep delivering it. Donate now.