Thursday would have been Mary G. Ross’s 110th birthday. And in honor of the trailblazing engineer’s significant contributions to the aerospace industry, Google’s doodle team — with help from Ross’s own family — created a vintage-style illustration for the Google homepage.
Ross, who was the first American Indian female engineer, was born in Oklahoma and proudly wore her Cherokee Indian heritage.
As the great-great-grandaughter of the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation between 1828 and 1866, she grew up learning that both boys and girls should receive equal education.
And she was quite the student, excelling in mathematics, physics and aviation — and graduating high school at age 16, followed by college at age 20.
After nine years of teaching, Ross earned a master’s degree in mathematics from the University of Northern Colorado at Greeley, but her love of aviation and rocket science at a time when the industry was booming landed her at the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation in Burbank, California.
There, Ross was encouraged to further her studies and pursue courses in aeronautical and mechanical engineering. She eventually became one of the first 40 employees hired to Lockheed’s top-secret Missiles Systems Division.
“Often at night there were four of us working until 11 p.m.,” Ross recounted about her time on the team, according to the Google blog. “I was the pencil pusher, doing a lot of research. My state of the art tools were a slide rule and a Frieden computer. We were taking the theoretical and making it real.”
Her contributions in the industry involved developing design concepts for interplanetary space travel, including flyby missions to Venus and Mars and developing satellite designs for the Agena rocket, portrayed in her Google doodle tribute.
But her legacy went beyond her technical accomplishments. Ross emerged a pioneer for both women and Native Americans in the STEM fields.
“In 1992 the SWE established a scholarship in Ross’s name, which aims to support future female engineers and technologists, including Aditi Jain, a current Google Maps engineer,” according to the Google blog.
“More than money,” Jain said, “it gave me confidence. I don’t think I considered myself an engineer until I received the scholarship.”
Ross died in 2008. She was 99.
Here’s how the Smithsonian describes Ross’s contributions, which have been immortalized in art:
“[Ross’s] face graces a sculpture at Buffalo State College and a painting by Cherokee artist America Meredith that shows her against a starry, rocket-filled sky is now in the collections of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. Entitled Ad Astra per Astra, meaning to the stars from the stars (a play on the Latin phrase “per aspera ad astra “), references a Cherokee origin story of how humans arrived on Earth from the Pleiades. Packed with symbolism—a seven-pointed star references the Seven Sisters constellation, the seven clans of the Cherokee and the seven directions in Cherokee cosmology—the portrait also includes a depiction of the Agena spacecraft.”
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