Yvonne Brill, pioneering rocket scientist, dies at 88
By DOUGLAS MARTIN
The New York Times | March 31,2013
She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children. “The world’s best mom,” her son Matthew said.
But Yvonne Brill, who died Wednesday at 88 in Princeton, N.J., was also a brilliant rocket scientist, who in the early 1970s invented a propulsion system to help keep communications satellites from slipping out of their orbits.
The system became the industry standard, and it was the achievement President Barack Obama mentioned in 2011 in presenting her with the National Medal of Technology and Innovation.
Her devotion to family also won notice. In 1980, Harper’s Bazaar magazine and the DeBeers Corp. gave her their Diamond Superwoman award for returning to a successful career after starting a family.
Brill is believed to have been the only woman in the United States who was actually doing rocket science in the mid-1940s, when she worked on the first designs for an American satellite.
It was a distinction she earned in the face of obstacles, beginning when the University of Manitoba in Canada refused to let her major in engineering because there were no accommodations for women at an outdoor engineering camp, which students were required to attend.
“You just have to be cheerful about it and not get upset when you get insulted,” she once said.
Brill’s development of a more efficient rocket thruster to keep orbiting satellites in place allowed satellites to carry less fuel and more equipment and to stay in space longer. The thrusters have the delicate task of maneuvering a weightless satellite that can tip the scales at up to 5,000 pounds on Earth.
Brill contributed to the propulsion systems of Tiros, the first weather satellite; Nova, a series of rocket designs that were used in American moon missions; the Atmosphere Explorer, the first upper-atmosphere satellite; and the Mars Observer, which in 1992 almost entered a Mars orbit before losing communication with Earth.
From 1981 to 1983, Brill worked for NASA developing the rocket motor for the space shuttle. In a statement after Brill’s death, Michael Griffin, president of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, praised her as “a pioneering spirit” who coupled “a clear vision of what the future of an entire area of systems should be with the ingenuity and genius necessary to make that vision a reality.”
Yvonne Madelaine Claeys was born on Dec. 30, 1924, in St. Vital, a suburb of Winnipeg, Manitoba. Her parents had separately immigrated from Flanders, in Belgium. Her father was a carpenter.
After the University of Manitoba barred her from the engineering program, she studied mathematics and chemistry instead and graduated at the top of her class. Her lack of an engineering degree did not prevent her from getting a job with Douglas Aircraft in Santa Monica, Calif.
“Nobody had the right degrees back then, so it didn’t matter,” she told The Star-Ledger of Newark in 2010. “I didn’t have engineering, but the engineers didn’t have the chemistry and math.”
She never received a professional engineer’s license, but did pick up a master’s in chemistry at the University of Southern California while working as a saleswoman for a chemical company. Afterward she went to work for Douglas, whose satellite project became the foundation of the RAND Corp., an early research center.
It was at RAND that she worked on the first American satellite designs, remaining there for three years. While still peddling chemicals, she met William Franklin Brill, a research chemist, at a talk by Linus Pauling, who would win one of his Nobel Prizes in chemistry. At one point William Brill told her about his problems making a particular chemical in his lab.
She replied that she could sell it to him by the pound at a very low price. Soon, the couple went square-dancing, only to discover that they both hated it. They found other interests, and married in 1951. He died in 2010.
They moved to Connecticut in 1952 when William Brill got a job there. She followed him again when he later got a job in New Jersey. She did not mind the moves, her son Matthew said. She would say, “Good husbands are harder to find than good jobs.”
Still, she managed to find jobs that allowed her to continue to work on rockets. One was at Wright Aeronautical in New Jersey. She left the company in 1958, however, to care for her young children, keeping her hand in the field by working part-time as a consultant for the FMC Corp. In 1966, she went back to work full time, taking a job at RCA’s rocket subsidiary. Soon she was doing the work that won international acclaim.
Brill patented her propulsion system for satellites in 1972, and the first communications satellite using it was launched in 1983. It is still being used by satellites that handle worldwide phone service, long-range television broadcasts and other tasks.
Part of Brill’s rationale for going into rocket engineering was that virtually no other women were doing so. “I reckoned they would not invent rules to discriminate against one person,” she said in a 1990 interview.
Throughout her career Brill encouraged women to become engineers and scientists, starting by telling high school girls to stick with math. In her last week of life, she was still writing letters recommending eminent women in engineering for professional awards.
Her own many awards include the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal in 2001 and top honors from several major engineering societies.
Matthew Brill said his mother died of complications of breast cancer. She lived in Skillman, N.J. Brill is also survived by another son, Joseph; a daughter, Naomi Brill; and four grandchildren.
In 2010, when Brill was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, The Washington Post began its article about the event by lauding two other honorees, Arthur Fry and Spencer Silver, the inventors of Post-its. The article went on to suggest that it took two men to create an adhesive stationery but only one woman to figure out how to keep satellites in place.