Born in Manitoba, Canada, Yvonne Claeys Brill attended the University of Manitoba wanting to study engineering but having to settle for science and mathematics as the dean of the school wouldn’t allow women in that department-but that didn’t stop her from becoming one of the world’s leading designers of jet propulsion systems.
Moving to California after college she was hired to develop a light weight rocket fuel to launch unmanned satellites but as the Cold War between the U.S. and Russia became more intense, the focus on her work shifted to missile technologies.
Around this time Brill had a decision to make, stay with her career on the West Coast or get married and move with her husband to the East Coast where his work was leading. In her words she decided that finding a good job was easier than finding a good husband so they two were married and moved east.
Finding work evaluating propulsion systems for theoretical communication satellites during the 1960s, Brill concluded that these satellites would need rocket engines with two different types of thrust levels. The first to put the object in orbit and the second to maintains its position once it achieved orbit. Her idea was to use hydrazine, a colorless flammable liquid that hadn’t been used on space craft previously. By using this one propellant rocket designs could be simplified and she created her electrothermal hydrazine thruster in 1967 for which she was granted a U.S. patent. This invention, now the industry standard, allowed for higher engine performance, increased the reliability of the propulsion system, and because it lowered the amount of propellant needed the payload capacity and mission life could be increase for the satellite.
Finding great satisfaction with the successful launch and deployment of any satellite she worked on, Brill worked on many other projects including the first weather satellite, a series of rocket designs used in the American moon missions, and the first upper-atmosphere satellite.
Brill’s work has been honored many times over including being a 2011 recipient of the National Medal of Technology and Innovation.
Written by Angela Goad