Yvonne Brill

Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science-and the World

In high school Yvonne Brill was told by her physics teacher that women couldn’t amount to anything. At the University of Manitoba she was told that the engineering department wouldn’t admit women. Later, a colleague told her that she should expect to work twice as hard to receive the same promotion as the men. This, of course, was before she was recognized as one of her generation’s most important rocket scientists. Later in life, she’d punctuate each old story with the warm laugh of someone who had always been confident that she could fulfill her own high ambitions. And once Brill let an idea settle in, there was not much anyone could do to dislodge it.

When Brill was four years old, Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. To the young Brill, finding freedom through flight looked extraordinary. It was nothing like what she saw growing up in Manitoba, Canada, as the third and youngest child of Belgian immigrant parents who hadn’t made it through high school. But no matter. One heroine taking flight was sufficient to prove that there were far-away places to go and extraordinary things to do.

At ten, she passed the University of Manitoba on a streetcar and decided she’d attend. That thing about the university supposedly not admitting women in engineering? Never mind that; she went, and by the time she graduated in mathematics and chemistry at age twenty, Brill was at the top of her class. Soon after, she secured a one-way ticket to Los Angeles. “I didn’t really discuss it with my parents,” Brill said later in an interview, laughing. “I just went ahead and got all the paperwork together and left.”

During the day, Brill worked as a mathematician contributing to the design of the first American satellite at Douglas Aircraft. At night, she pursued a master’s in chemistry through the University of Southern California. Brill was believed to be the only woman working in rocket science in the United States in the 1940s. After several years of mathematics, including figuring out the trajectories of different rocket stage sizes using just a slide rule, Brill found that the purely theoretical work at Douglas Aircraft made her restless. She wanted to see her work actually take off, but to do it, she needed to change specialties. Brill considered a career in chemistry, where she had already earned a graduate degree, but ultimately decided against it because of the field’s heavy discrimination against women. “There was just no question,” she remembered in an interview with the Society of Women Engineers. “Whereas engineering, as an individual of one, they weren’t about to make rules to block your progress, because that was too much trouble.” She made the switch.

Brill first worked as a chemical engineer in Southern California before moving to the East Coast, where she worked on turbojet engine cycles and chemical manufacturing performance calculations. At the time, electric propulsion systems were, as she called them, “the cat’s meow”—both new and one hundred times more powerful than what was then capable with chemical propulsion. But there was still a lot to learn.

Brill started thinking about a particular, crucial moment—the one that happens just as a satellite is injected into orbit. Like a golfer lining up a putt, satellites often need to make little adjustments once they’re placed into orbit. The chemical propulsion system at the time was overly complicated, and electric systems needed too much power.

Years earlier, Brill had studied German rockets and had become fascinated with the potential of their chemical propulsion systems. So she began by “looking at the performance and trying to decide what areas of the periodic table one could put emphasis on to get higher performance fuels.” Too busy with her day job to devote any on-the-clock hours to a passion project, Brill worked on weekends and late into the night, hunkering down at her kitchen table with pencils, yellow notepads, and a slide rule. Finally confident that she was onto something after examining the ammonia, hydrogen, and nitrogen produced under different conditions, Brill recruited someone with enough skill to check her work. “I never was afraid to risk my job to further ideas that I thought should be adopted, that were good technical ideas, that maybe somebody considered were a little bit far out. But as long as I knew technically I was on the right—or had the confidence that I was technically on the right path, I’d push it.” What she discovered was a more fuel-efficient chemical propulsion thruster that helped satellites carry more substantial payloads and remain in orbit for longer periods of time.

Her electrothermal hydrazine thruster was still used in satellites when she died in 2013. It may have been Brill’s best-known contribution to rocket science, but it was by no means her only one. Over the course of her career, which took place in the United States and England, Brill worked on the Nova rockets that took America to the moon, the first weather satellite, the first satellite stationed in the upper atmosphere, the Mars Observer, and the engine for the space shuttle. For this work she was awarded the Resnik Challenger Medal by the Society of Women Engineers, the Wyld Propulsion Award from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), and the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, among others. “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,” said AIAA president Mike Griffin in 2013.

With the Society of Women Engineers Brill spent decades both encouraging women to go into math and sciences and encouraging institutions to give female engineers the recognition they deserved. In return, the society gave her access to a network of women all carving out a then-unconventional career.

There’s a story Brill liked to tell about a visitor from another company coming into RCA, where she worked at the time, to give a talk. During his presentation, the visitor asked how many propulsion engineers worked at the company. Brill was the only one. Horrified, the visitor explained that his company employed seventy-five. Just then an RCA program manager piped up: “We believe in quality, not quantity.”

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