KEYWORDS: Yvonne Brill, Aerospace engineer, Space, Rocket scientist.
SHE THOUGHT IT
Yvonne Madelaine Brill (née Claeys) was an extraordinary woman and the only female from early American scientists in the field of aerospace engineering. She was an outstanding scientist, especially because of her determination and will to improve aerospace technology. She was the inventor of a system for a rocket engine called ‘hydrazine resistojet’.
At her times women were not accepted to study engineering thus she studied science and mathematics at her hometown university in Matinoba. Her attempt to explain the reason for women non-acceptance in the engineering field concerns the need of camping in the wilderness and the lack of interest in building adjusted facilities for women.
After completing her Master’s degree and working in several companies, she joined many interesting projects and one of them was Project RAND, which later became the famous Rand Corporation, one of the first think tanks for the US Air Force.³ (p.76) She got married with a collaborator she met when working in a small company, the Marquardt Corporation, and her career was to be relinquished upon motherhood for the next ten years after marriage.
The highlight of her career was reached when she invented the electrothermal hydrazine thruster (EHT), which was designed to keep communications satellites from slipping out of orbit.⁶ The hydrazine thruster makes it possible to control the satellites’ orbits and to keep them in the proper trajectories longer, thus it is much more efficient than all previously invented thrusters. In addition, in 1980’s she received a Diamond Superwoman award. ”³ (p.77) However, Brill returned to work after ten years without a permanent employment which was implausible. Brills’ innovation of rocket propulsion system allowed satellite to carry a smaller load of fuel or a larger load of instruments into space. Additionally, her measurements of performance of various rocket fuels were standardized for further scientific work in the rocket area.¹ (p. 28)
Yvonne Madelaine Brill, née Claeys was born in Winnipeg, Canada on the 30th of December 1924. She was the daughter of uneducated parents who immigrated from Belgium to Canada. Her father was a carpenter. As a child she admired prominent female pilot Amelia Earhart, who was the first solo flier woman to cross the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.⁴ (p.7) After she was not admitted to the men-only engineering department at the University of Matinoba, she achieved a bachelor degree in chemistry and mathematics at the same university. She has moved to southern California and attended night school working toward a Master’s degree in chemistry at the University of Southern California³ (p.76). During her studies she worked for Douglas Aircraft in Santa Monica, California in the aerodynamics department. Regardless her big interest in engineering, she has been transferred to the chemistry department and got involved with rocket propellants, rocket engines and ramjets.³ (p.76) At that time the company became the basis for RAND Corporation and she helped with creation of the first designs for an American satellite.⁶ Though she enjoyed working in the chemistry department with air-breathing jet engines, after having earned her master’s degree in chemistry she decided to pursue a career in engineering.³ (p.76) At the time of the Cold War she was assigned to calculate thermodynamic components for very high temperatures, needed to ascertain the performance of oxidizers and rocket fuels. The data she assembled was used for the thermodynamic tables adopted for the first industry standards.³ (p.76) She did not pursue her PhD in chemistry because she was more interested in the rocket engineering field and she as well had some bad experiences with discrimination in hiring women in chemistry-related workplaces.³ (p.76)
She has met her future husband – who was a postdoctoral student in chemistry – while working for the Marquardt Corporation, where she ran various tests on the ramjets. Some conflict appeared between them when looking for job opportunities. She has found a potential employment in the West Coast and her husband on the East Coast. They followed his career path, moved to the East Coast, got married and had three children, two sons and a daughter.³ (p.77) Later they moved back to Princeton New Jersey, and Yvonne occasionally worked as a consultant in propellants and researching for advanced fuel combinations. She returned to work as quadragenarian and became the first and only propulsion engineer on staff at the RCA Astro Electronics.³ (p.77) In an interview with Magdolna Hargittai she illustrates how her innovation became patented:
Actually, when I went through the calculations of the performance, it gives you 30% more, which was very significant. I wrote a disclosure and eventually the company, RCA, applied for a patent and put it on their spacecrafts, there are quite a number of them that uses this thruster. I discovered last summer, checking with a company who builds hydrazine thrusters, that there are 120 spacecraft in orbit using their electrothermal hydrazine thrusters. (p.77)
Her innovation was called hydrazine resistojet and was much more efficient and suitable for controlling the satellite’s orbits and communication so that every satellite stays on its path. Hydrazine resistojet was used for the first time in 1983 and did not take long until Brill constituted another prosperous propulsion system as program manager for the RCA/Navy Nova spacecraft project.³ (p.78) Since 1983, companies such as RCA, GE, Lockheed Martin and Orbital Sciences have used EHTs on their communications satellites.⁵ Between 1981 and 1983, she worked for NASA and made contributions to the development of a space shuttle rocket engine.⁶ Her career path was varied since she changed working environment every few years, thus gaining valuable work experience in chemistry and engineering. Furthermore, job positions for women started to come out, since men were mostly engaged on war-related jobs at this time. Nevertheless, Yvonne Brill has served as a role model for further generations of women engineers, including her daughter.⁷ (p.53) In her remarkable career she expanded horizons of space technology and innovation. Presence of women engineers escalated noticeably despite the fact that engineering was still a male occupation. Yvonne Brill was very well aware of the importance of role model, therefore she participated in the promotion of activities for women to be brave enough to stand out, go to work and make their own place in the field of science and engineering. She was an active member of the Society of Women Engineers which basic pursuit is to endue young women with the awareness of the opportunities in engineering. Furthermore, she has been awarded with the Society of Women Engineers’ Achievement Award in 1986. Considering that she worked in a male-dominated area it is surprising that she was not exposed to discrimination, except of a few comments. This was due to her attitude towards everyday challenges she was facing at work and at home. One of the most attention-grabbing debate was after she passed away and the New York Times admired her cooking skills before mentioning that she was “also a brilliant rocket scientist³ (p.79).” However, they rewrote the article after readers’ outbreak of protest.³ (p.79)
Besides many others, she got the AIAA Wyld Award in 2002 and the AAES John Fritz Medal in 2009. President Obama mentioned her special achievement in 2011 when giving a speech presenting nominees for the National Medal of Technology and Innovation where she was awarded with the National Medal of Technology and Innovation. She died in Princeton, New Jersey on 27th of March 2013 of complications of breast cancer.²
Despite her husband with whom she shared her private family life and a passion for work in aircraft industry, she was accompanied with peers as John Northrop (company), Andrew Viterbi (school), Arthur Nobile (school), John Silliker (school), Rangaswamy Srinivasa (school), and others.⁵
After receiving the Society of Women Engineers’ Achievement award, she had been recognized by peer-group for her contributions to rocketry and space. She was elected fellow of the American Institution for Aeronautics and Astronautics.³ (p.79) After her many of other rocket scientist followed to be recognized as well.
In the words of Mike Griffin she was an exceptional aerospace engineer remembered as a pioneer: “She truly represented the best of what American aerospace engineering and system development should be – a pioneering spirit coupled to 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.”²
SHE SAID IT
“I decided there were so few women engineers that they were not about to make a rule to discriminate against one person and that proved to be perfectly correct. As long as you showed that you were capable and willing to do the work and not to try to get by some flimsy excuse, you were respected.”
Cited in Magdolna Hargittai, Women Scientists: Reflections, Challenges, and Breaking Boundaries (p.78)
”I always remember there was a very old-line person, typical stodgy old-line person in charge of personnel. And his argument was, ‘How could a woman with three children ever get to work on time?’ Years later … he apologized to me and said I really had worked out very well.”
Cited in Gannon, Megan (1 Apr.2013), Pioneering Rocket Scientist Yvonne Brill Dies at 88.
”I combat the problem at a different angle than, I think, a man would have. I think this is generally true. Or taken another example, manufacturing. My daughter who has a degree in mechanical engineering, is in manufacturing and, in general women just know, intuitively, an easier way to put things together and make them work. They may not have been encouraged in mechanical things when they were young, but it certainly shouldn’t prohibit them from being able to do that work well.”
Cited in Magdolna Hargittai, Women Scientists: Reflections, Challenges, and Breaking Boundaries (p.78)
THEY SAID IT
”Each of these extraordinary scientists, engineers, and investors is guided by a passion for innovation, fearlessness even as they explore the very frontiers of human knowledge, and a desire to make the world a better place. Their ingenuity inspires us all to reach higher and try harder, no matter how difficult the challenges we face.”
Cited by Magdolna Hargittai, Women Scientists: Reflections, Challenges, and Breaking Boundaries; President Barack Obama words when announcing the 2011 recipients of the National Medal of Science and the National Medal of Technology and Innovation.
PRIZES, ACHIEVEMENTS, HONOURS
1980: The Diamond Superwoman Award by Harper’s Bazaar;
1985: An elected fellow of the American Institution for Aeronautics and Astronautics,
1986: The Society of Women Engineers’ Achievement Award;
1999: An inductee into the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame;
2001: The NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal;
2002: The AIAA Wyld Propulsion Award;
2009: The American Association of Engineering Societies John Fritz Medal;
2010: An inductee into the National Inventors Hall of Fame;
2011: The National Medal of Technology and Innovation.
- Blashfield, Jean F., (1996), Women inventors, 3, Minneapolis, Capstone Press.
- Gannon, Megan, (1. Apr 2013), Pioneering Rocket Scientist Yvonne Brill Dies at 88, <https://www.space.com/20467-yvonne-brill-rocket-scientist-obituary.html> (last accessed 24 Oct. 2017)
- Hargittai, Magdolna, (2015), Women Scientists: Reflection, Challenges, and Breaking Boundaries, New York, Oxford University Press.
- Labrecque, Ellen, (2017), Yvonne Brill and Satellite Propulsion, Ann Arbor, Michigan, Cherry Lake Publishing.
- National Inventors Hall of Fame: Yvonne Brill <http://www.invent.org/honor/inductees/inductee-detail/?IID=407> (last accessed 24 Oct. 2017)
- Schreiber A., Barbara, (2013), ”Yvonne Brill, Canadian-born American aerospace engineerrocket scientist”, Britannica Book of the Year, <https://www.britannica.com/biography/Yvonne-Brill> (last accessed 24 Oct. 2017)
- Tietjen, Jill S., (2017), Women in Engineering and Science: Engineering Women: Re-visioning Women’s Scientific Achievements and Impacts, Switzerland, Springer Nature.