Brill developed the concept for a new rocket engine called a “hydrazine resistojet” (resistojet is a method of spacecraft propulsion that provides thrust by heating a non-reactive fluid). This form of propulsion was first applied on a Radio Corporation of America (RCA) spacecraft in 1983. Since then, it has become a satellite industry standard.
Brill also contributed to the propulsion system of the first upper-atmosphere satellite (Explorer 32) and the first weather satellite (Tiros). In addition, she assisted with a series of rocket designs for Nova’s moon missions, the Mars Observer, and the rocket motor for NASA’s space shuttle.
Brill invented a rocket thruster that allowed satellites to carry less fuel and stay in space longer. The multiple thrust systems used on spacecrafts before her invention enabled the crew on the ground to correct errors and execute new orders. However, this thrust method was heavy because each system had separate fuel types and needed different tanks.
What Brill did was to introduce a single type of propellant for all functions, instead of a number of different systems. This is how her hydrazine resistojet works:
How did Brill become such an outstanding rocket scientist, and what made her pursue her dream when most women of her generation didn’t even go to college?
In 1945, after graduation, she accepted a job offer from the Douglas Aircraft Company in California and moved to the United States. She wanted to get a master’s degree in chemistry, and she decided to attend evening classes at the University of Southern California. This is where she met her future husband, William Brill. They married within a year and moved to the East Coast, first to Connecticut, then to New Jersey.
Yvonne managed to balance her family life and her career. She followed her husband (who was a research chemist) to wherever his job would take them, ending up in Princeton, New Jersey. She always managed to get job offers in a field dominated by men. In the beginning, she worked part-time jobs so that she could care for their three young children.
Brill is believed to be the only woman in the United Stated who was researching into rocket science in the mid-1940s. She encountered her fare share of prejudice, but she never felt any bitterness: ”It’s just nothing I ever thought about,” she remarked when recalling that she was paid a salary below that of men.
For the last twenty years of her life, Yvonne Brill promoted other women scientists’ work, nominating them for various prizes that she thought they deserved.
In 2011, at a White House ceremony, President Obama awarded Brill the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, the nation’s highest honor for engineers and innovators. When she was asked how she succeeded against all odds and became a pioneer in her field, she replied: “I just had the drive to do it!”
Sadly, Yvonne Brill died last month, on March 27, 2013, in Princeton, New Jersey.