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Mary Golda Ross: The First Native American Aerospace Engineer and Space Race Pioneer

Mary Golda Ross spent over 30 years at Lockheed, much of it as a member of the top-secret Skunk Works program involved in cutting edge research during the early years of the space race.

When Mary Golda Ross, the first Native American aerospace engineer, began her career at the aerospace company Lockheed during World War II, women engineers were rare and most companies expected them to leave after the war was over to make room for returning men. Ross was such a phenomenal talent, however, that she not only stayed at Lockheed for over 30 years years, she became an integral member of the top-secret Skunk Works program involved in cutting edge research during the early years of the space race. As one of 40 engineers in Lockheed's Advanced Development Projects division, Ross was the only female engineer on the team and the only Native American. Her research was so secret that, even in 1994, she had to be coy with an interviewer about her work: "I was the pencil pusher, doing a lot of research," she said. "My state of the art tools were a slide rule and a Friden computer."

Born on August 9, 1908 in Park Hill, Oklahoma, a small town often called the 'center of Cherokee culture,' Ross was the great-granddaughter of renowned Cherokee Nation Chief John Ross. A talented child, Ross was sent to live with her grandparents in the Cherokee Nation capital of Tahlequah, Oklahoma to attend school. She loved math from an early age, and said that she "didn’t mind being the only girl in math class [because] math, chemistry and physics were more fun to study than any other subject."

She went on to earn a bachelor's degree in mathematics in 1928 at Northeastern State Teachers' College and a master's degree in 1938 from the Colorado State Teachers College, where she took "every astronomy class they had." During the Great Depression, she taught math and science for nine years in rural Oklahoma schools. On the advice of her father, Ross moved to California in 1941 after the U.S. joined WWII to seek out more work opportunities and was hired as a mathematician by Lockheed in 1942.

Initially, she worked on the P-38 Lightning, one of the fastest airplanes at the time that was used extensively during WWII. Her research on the effects of pressure on the fighter plane helped solve problems related to high speed flight and aeroelasticity. The war years involved nearly non-stop work and she recalls that "often at night there were four of us working until 11 pm." Impressed by her work, Lockheed sent her to UCLA following the war for a professional certification in engineering.

In 1952, she was invited to join Lockheed's top-secret Advanced Development Projects division, commonly known as Skunk Works, where she worked on "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." She also worked on the cutting-edge Agena rocket project, and on preliminary design concepts for flyby missions to Venus and Mars as one of the authors of the NASA Planetary Flight Handbook Volume III. As she once said of her work in an interview, "we were taking the theoretical and making it real." By the time she retired in 1973, she had reached the rank of senior advanced systems staff engineer and had worked on the Polaris reentry vehicle and the Poseidon and Trident missiles.

In celebration of the opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in 2004, then 96-year-old Ross asked her niece to make her a traditional Cherokee dress. The green calico dress was the first traditional dress that Ross ever owned, and she wore it as part of procession of 25,000 Native Americans during the museum's opening ceremony. Ross also left an endowment of $400,000 to the museum upon her death at the age of 99 in 2008. She was proud to be able to contribute to the museum's ability to "tell the true story of the Indian — not just the story of the past, but an ongoing story."

In honor of Ross' work, the U.S. Mint's 2019 Native American $1 coin, which is dedicated to American Indians in the Space Program, features an image of Ross on its face. "Her achievements deeply impressed me," says Emily Damstra, the science illustrator who designed the coin. "From the beginning of my design process, before I had anything else worked out, I knew that my design would include a figure of her." Ross would no doubt be thrilled to know that her story is inspiring a new generation of mathematicians and engineers: when asked about women in the space program in the 1960s, she said that women would make "wonderful astronauts" but added, "I’d rather stay down here and analyze the data."

Books About Women In Engineering and the Early Space Program

Future Engineer

Future Engineer

Written by: Lori Alexander
Illustrated by: Allison Black
Recommended Age: 1 - 3

"Flip a switch. Turn a gear. Could Baby be an engineer?" This baby loves to find out all about how things work! She's full of questions — just like a grown-up engineer — and she's determined to learn the answers. In this charming book from the Future Baby board book series, baby learns fun facts about a variety of engineering fields, including electrical, mechanical, and civil engineering, as well as the importance of keeping a curious spirit and refusing to give up. This delightful and encouraging board book is sure to spark some engineering spirit in everyone!

The Girl With A Mind For Math: The Story of Raye Montague

The Girl With A Mind For Math: The Story of Raye Montague

Written by: Julia Finley Mosca
Illustrated by: Daniel Rieley
Recommended Age: 5 - 9

As a 7-year-old during WWII, Raye Montague toured a captured German submarine and immediately set her sights on becoming an engineer. Little did she know that sexism and racism would challenge her dream every step of the way. Raye ended up working at the US Navy as a typist, studying engineering at night. One day, when all the engineers were sick with the flu, she astonished everyone by completing all of their work. She went on to become the first person to design a ship on a computer and the Navy's first female ship designer. This inspiring picture book from the Amazing Scientists series celebrates a pioneer who changed ship design forever.

Counting on Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Saved Apollo 13

Counting on Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Saved Apollo 13

Written by: Helaine Becker
Illustrated by: Dow Phumiruk
Recommended Age: 5 - 9

Katherine Johnson loved to count, and despite the prejudices against both women and African Americans, she was determined to find a way to make her love of math into a career. As one of NASA's "human computers," Johnson hand calculated elaborate equations... including the trajectories that helped launch the Apollo 13 mission to the moon. When disaster befell the Apollo 13 mission, it was Johnson's flight-path calculations that brought the astronauts safely home. This inspiring biography of the mathematician catapulted to fame by Hidden Figures celebrates a love of math and encourages kids to follow their passions. For another picture book about Johnson and her colleagues, check out Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race.

Margaret and the Moon: How Margaret Hamilton Saved the First Lunar Landing

Margaret and the Moon: How Margaret Hamilton Saved the First Lunar Landing

Written by: Dean Robbins
Illustrated by: Lucy Knisley
Recommended Age: 5 - 9

Margaret Hamilton loved numbers, and to her, the best part of math was when it could solve a problem in the real world! Her love of math introduced her to computers, and then to a job at NASA, where they were planning a mission to the moon — and computers were going to be a part of it. Hamilton hand-wrote the code for the Apollo missions, and when a last-minute problem cropped up as Apollo 11 prepared for a lunar landing, it was Hamilton's forward-thinking code that saved the day! This lively look at a computer pioneer is a great way to show young readers that math really can take you to the stars.

Rosie Revere's Big Project Book for Bold Engineers

Rosie Revere's Big Project Book for Bold Engineers

Written by: Andrea Beaty
Illustrated by: David Roberts
Recommended Age: 5 and up

Fans of the book Rosie Revere, Engineer will love this fun project book that encourages kids to put their inventiveness and perseverance into practice! In this activity book, there are 40+ things for kids to invent, draw, and make, including designing a better bicycle, building a simple catapult, constructing a solar oven, and more. A simple explanation of the engineering design process, from identifying the problem that needs solving to evaluating whether or not your creation was a success, show kids that invention is rarely a straightforward process, and positive text encourages the owner of the book to see herself like Rosie: inventive and bold!

Galaxy Girls: 50 Amazing Stories of Women in Space

Galaxy Girls: 50 Amazing Stories of Women in Space

Written by: Libby Jackson
Recommended Age: 7 - 12

This gorgeously illustrated collected biography honors inspirational women who helped fuel some of the greatest achievements in space exploration from the nineteenth century to today! Galaxy Girls pays tribute to fifty pioneering women past and present, from mathematicians to engineers to test pilots to astronauts. Each capsule biography is paired with striking full-page original artwork from the students of the London College of Communication. Perfect for inspiring the space leaders of tomorrow, this stunning book gives this band of heroic sisters and their remarkable and often little known scientific achievements long overdue recognition.

Gutsy Girls Go For Science: Engineers

Gutsy Girls Go For Science: Engineers

Written by: Diane Taylor
Illustrated by: Hui Li
Recommended Age: 8 - 11

Engineering touches almost everything we do, whether it's opening a carton of milk for breakfast or crossing a bridge that connects a city! In this book from the Gutsy Girls Go For Science series, kids will learn about five women in engineering: Ellen Swallow Richards, Emily Warren Roebling, Kate Gleason, Lillian Moller Gilbreth, and Mary Jackson. They'll also test out some hands-on STEM projects, from conducting a virtual tour of a model bridge to researching organizational psychology. With a fun narrative style and full-color pages, this book is sure to inspire future engineers.

Hidden Figures Young Readers' Edition

Hidden Figures Young Readers' Edition

Written by: Margot Lee Shetterly
Recommended Age: 8 - 13

Before people could orbit the Earth or fly to the moon, there was a group of "human computers": dedicated female mathematician who used pencil and slide rule to calculate how to launch rockets. Four African-American women, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden, were critical to the story of space flight — and yet their story was largely untold. In this young readers edition of Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, tweens will learn how these women, so little appreciated in their time, changed both NASA and America for the better. Younger readers can check out the picture book Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race for ages 5 to 9.

Women in Science

50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World

Women in Science

50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World

Written by: Rachel Ignotofsky
Recommended Age: 9 and up

This charmingly illustrated and educational book highlights the contributions of fifty notable women to the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics from the ancient to the modern world. Full of striking, singular art, this fascinating collection profiles well-known figures like primatologist Jane Goodall, as well as lesser-known pioneers such as Katherine Johnson, the African-American physicist and mathematician who calculated the trajectory of the 1969 Apollo 11 mission to the moon. Women in Science celebrates the achievements of the intrepid women who have paved the way for the next generation of female engineers, biologists, mathematicians, doctors, astronauts, physicists, and more!

Astronauts: Women on the Final Frontier

Astronauts: Women on the Final Frontier

Written by: Jim Ottaviani
Illustrated by: Maris Wicks
Recommended Age: 10 and up

For decades during the early space race, NASA knew the "right" sort of person to be an astronaut — and they were all men. Talented women were denied the chance to try, even when they proved they were just as qualified. Then Valentina Tereshkova of the USSR became the first woman in space, and suddenly, NASA wanted to catch up. Group 9, NASA's first mixed gender class, still had to fight stereotypes, but they proved that women also deserved to fly. The author / illustrator pair behind Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas tells this captivating story in the voice of former astronaut Mary Cleave, creating an inspiring graphic novel that reminds readers that progress is fastest when we include everyone.

Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science – And The World

Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science – And The World

Written by: Rachel Swaby
Recommended Age: 13 and up

Learn the often neglected stories of women in science with these 52 engaging capsule biographies! Spanning centuries of courageous thinkers, author Rachel Swaby celebrates women whose specializations range from biology to physics to engineering, from famous names like Sally Ride and Ada Lovelace to lesser-known women like Stephanie Kwolek and Chien-Shiung Wu. While each individual's biography runs for only a few pages, Swaby has done an impressive job of conveying the essence of each scientist's life and work into the profiles, while her light tone urges readers to learn more about each of these groundbreaking women.

Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars

Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars

Written by: Nathalia Holt
Recommended Age: Adults

When the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, founded in the 1940s, needed clever mathematicians for calculations, they recruited a group of young women whose penciled equations about velocities and plot trajectories would propel the science of space exploration. Over two decades, these dedicated women would transform rocket design, allow the creation of the first American satellites, and eventually, make it possible to explore our solar system — and yet few people know their story. Nathalia Holt tells the story of these groundbreaking "human computers" who broke new ground for both women and science in a compelling and exciting way. Inspiring and thought-provoking, this book will change the way you look at the history of space travel — as well as its future.

Rocket Girl: The Story of Mary Sherman Morgan, America's First Female Rocket Scientist

Rocket Girl: The Story of Mary Sherman Morgan, America's First Female Rocket Scientist

Written by: George D. Morgan
Recommended Age: Adults

As a teenager in the late 1930s, Mary Sherman Morgan dreamed of a career in chemistry at a time when most of her peers dreamed of husbands and children. When top scientists like Wernher von Braun could not find solutions to the repeated failures of the American space program’s rockets, the job was given to North American Aviation — and to Morgan, one of the company's rare women scientists but already known by management as a tremendously talented engineer. The formula she developed for rocket fuel launched Explorer 1 into the stratosphere and beyond. Morgan’s son tells the story of the little-known woman whose work was critical to the launch of America’s first satellite.

LEGO Women of NASA Building Kit

LEGO Women of NASA Building Kit

Manufacturer: LEGO
Recommended Age: 10 and up

Build a tribute to some of the ground-breaking women who took American into space with this much-anticipated set from LEGO Ideas! This fan-designed set features astronomer Nancy Grace Roman; computer scientist Margaret Hamilton; astronaut and physicist Sally Ride; and astronaut, physician and engineer Mae Jemison, each as part of a vignette depicting their role with NASA. It's a wonderful way to inspire the women in STEM of future generations!

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