Engineering the future of space travel.
Mary G. Ross was the first known Native American woman engineer. An engineer’s job is to creatively use science and math to solve practical problems. This requires designing with specific functions in mind, anticipating potential issues, and ensuring every piece of the system works together seamlessly. Ross designed incredibly fast airplanes, and helped pave the way for manned space flight, all the way back in the 1940s and 50s!
"In true engineering fashion, Ross was always thinking far ahead. She passed away in 2008, but with the help of her resolute interest in interplanetary travel and ground-breaking aerospace engineering designs, maybe one day we will send humans to other planets."
Watch the video, or continue reading below!
Ross was born in Park Hill, Oklahoma and was a member of the Cherokee nation. It was very important to the Ross family that all genders be educated equally, and they strongly supported her scientific interests and goals. In fact, her hometown was the original site of the famed Cherokee Female Seminary, the first women’s institution of higher education west of the Mississippi.
After earning her bachelor’s degree in math from Northeastern State Teacher’s College in 1928, Ross spent many years teaching math and science in rural Oklahoma and at a Native American boarding school. During this time she earned her master’s degree by taking classes in the summers, and she completed her degree in 1938.
Engineering Under Pressure
In 1942, during WWII, Mary was hired by an aeronautics company called Lockheed. During the war she mostly designed fighter planes. At the same time, she also helped solve numerous design issues involved with high speed flight.
She assisted in the troubleshooting of the P-38 Lightning, a fighter plane that came close to flying faster than the speed of sound. To achieve these speeds, the P-38 Lightning had to fly at extremely high altitudes where there are fewer air particles, meaning lower air pressure than we feel on the ground. This caused engineers to worry the plane would collapse during dives, due to the high speeds and differences in atmospheric pressure.
Outside of her work on airplanes, one of Ross’ interests was developing vehicles for manned space travel. Keep in mind, this was more than 20 years before people went to the moon!
Many of the obstacles related to manned space flight are the same she had already encountered when working on airplanes. Most importantly, airplanes are designed both to take off AND land. Previous space missions which were concerned with launching satellites into orbit, but a manned space flight would have the extra challenge of bringing the vehicle and its astronauts back from space.
What does it take to send a person to space?
Where would you start if you were an engineer and it was your job to get astronauts into space and then back home again? Feel free to pause for a moment and puzzle this out.
Let’s think creatively about
what kind of vehicle you would need. First, you should think about making sure the vehicle can withstand high speeds and low atmospheric pressure.
Additionally, the Earth’s atmosphere allows us to breathe and protects us from much of the sun’s radiation. So you need to be sure that your astronauts can breathe and are protected from ultraviolet, X-ray, and gamma radiation.
What kind of material should you use for the craft? Through many lab trials, and through experience building airplanes, engineers like Ross knew that steel was the best choice, since it can withstand pressures and is structurally stable.
Secondly, you may want to think about fuel options. Blasting into space requires a lot of energy, and requires a special type of fuel. But liquids are heavy, and every single kilogram counts against you when you’re trying to make it into space. We should consider alternatives, like solid fuel, or solar panels once we’re in space, and we should do our best to shed any extra weight that we can (this is why some pieces of rockets are designed to fall off during the launch).
Finally, your astronauts need to come back to Earth eventually. This means that you have to design a reentry craft that is capable of withstanding the intense friction and heat generated by falling through the Earth’s atmosphere.
You’ll also need a way to slow down that fall-- for example, perhaps a big parachute to create air resistance and drag.
These are just a few of the challenges that needed to be figured out when Mary G. Ross and other aerospace engineers were building some of the first rockets. Can you think of any others?
Mary G. Ross’ work was very important for the Apollo missions, which ended up taking us to the moon! Later on in her career she worked on the Skunk Works project to develop the preliminary designs for flyby and interplanetary space travel. She also co-authored the NASA Planetary Flight Handbook which was used for many years to calculate flight and orbit trajectories. After her retirement, Mary Ross worked to recruit Native American youth to engineering programs, continuing her family’s tradition of supporting young Native American scientists in their ambitions.
In an interview Mary did with the Tahlequah Daily Press, they wrote “[. . .] She had been dreaming of sending probes and people into space ever since she took her first astronomy classes in graduate school. She didn’t speak of it when she was hired at Lockheed because 'if I had mentioned it in 1942, my credibility would have been questioned.'”
In true engineering fashion, Ross was always thinking far ahead. She passed away in 2008, but with the help of her resolute interest in interplanetary travel and ground-breaking aerospace engineering designs, maybe one day we will send humans to other planets.
Photos courtesy of NASA and Lockheed
Written by Lindsey Oberhelman and Madelyn Leembruggen
Edited by Caroline Martin
Illustrations by Nicole Naporano
Portrait by Jovana Andrejevic
Primary sources and additional readings:
Mary Ross: A Hidden Figure by NASA
Mary Golda Ross: Mathematician, engineer and inspiration by the Cherokee Phoenix
Mary Golda Ross: She Reached for the Stars by American Indian Magazine
Remembering Mary G. Ross – First American Indian Woman Engineer by the Society of Women Engineers
Hone your engineering skills with these activities!
Challenge (20-30 minutes): Learn how planes fly only by moving through the air, and explore how wing shape and speed affect the lift and drag of a plane's wings.
Build (1-1.5 hours): Make your own straw rocket and test its performance.
Investigate (15-20 minutes): Try to find the perfect launch parameters with this rocket launch simulator.