Yvonne Brill: Rocket scientist who developed a system to keep satellites in their orbits

Yvonne Brill was a pioneering rocket scientist, who, after an eight-year break to raise a family, went on to develop a propulsion system to help keep satellites from slipping out of their orbits. The system, invented in the early 1970s, remains the industry standard for unmanned spacecraft and earned her recognition in 2011 when she received the National Medal of Technology and Innovation from President Obama, who cited the US Patent and Trademark Office: "Satellites using her invention form the backbone of the worldwide communication network."

She was described by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics as "a trailblazer at a time when women were not encouraged to enter the science and technology fields". Her remarkable success was achieved with no official engineering degree and in the face of much male prejudice, particularly remarkable given that she is believed to have been the only woman in the United States working in rocket science in the mid-1940s. She said, "You just have to be cheerful about it and not get upset when you get insulted." She was still encouraging women to become engineers and scientists well into her 80s.

Brill, an expert in the chemistry of space propulsion, developed the hydrazine resistojet, a more efficient rocket thruster to keep orbiting satellites in place; it also allowed satellites to carry less fuel and more scientific equipment and to stay in space longer. The thrusters have the delicate task of manoeuvring a weightless satellite that can weigh more than 2.5 tons on Earth.

A determined woman, Brill was not afraid of risking her job to further ideas that, she said, "I thought should be adopted, that were good technical ideas, that maybe somebody considered were a little bit far out... I just kept pushing. I didn't care whose shins I kicked... And the ideas got adopted."

Brill was subsequently associated with numerous notable projects. She contributed to the propulsion systems of Tiros, the first weather satellites; Nova, a series of rocket designs used in Apollo lunar missions; the Atmosphere Explorer, the first upper-atmosphere satellite; and the Mars Observer, launched in 1992 and which in 1993 almost entered orbit round Mars before it lost contact with Earth.

Born in a suburb of Winnipeg, in the state of Manitoba, central Canada, in 1924, Yvonne Madelaine Claeys was the youngest of three daughters born to Belgian immigrants; both parents had left Flanders separately. Her father had a carpentry business while her mother raised the family.

Showing an early flair for science, Brill applied to study engineering at the University of Manitoba. However, she was turned down on the basis that there was no accommodation for women at a special summer outdoor engineering camp, which students were required to attend. Undeterred, she read mathematics and chemistry, graduating at the top of her class in 1945.

Upon graduation, although without a relevant degree, Brill went to work for the Douglas Aircraft Co in Santa Monica, California and gravitated to the chemistry of propellants. "I didn't have engineering but the engineers didn't have the chemistry and math," she later said. She subsequently earned a master's degree in chemistry from the University of Southern California. While at a chemistry lecture given by the Nobel prize-winner Linus Pauling, she met her future husband, Bill Brill, who held a PhD in chemistry. They began dating and married in 1951.

For many years they faced a challenge: his job opportunities lay in the east, hers in the west. Her decision was to follow his career. She recalled that it was based on her belief that "good jobs are easier to find than good husbands". In spite of the move, the post-war rush into rocket technology and her expertise meant that she was rarely out of work. She was employed at the Rand Corporation, a Douglas spin-off, and then Wright Aeronautical in New Jersey until she left full-time work, feeling "very put upon" to raise her family.

Brill did some consultancy work, and in 1966 returned full-time to RCA's rocket subsidiary, Astro Electronics, where she developed her satellite propulsion system, also known as the electro-thermal hydrazine thruster, which allowed engineers to more efficiently alter and monitor the position of satellites in a geosynchronous orbit around Earth. She patented her system in 1972, and the first communications satellite using it was launched in 1983.

From 1981 to 1983 she worked at Nasa headquarters in Washington as the director of the space shuttle's solid rocket motor programme. She worked in London for the International Maritime Satellite Organisation (from 1986-91) until her retirement.

Brill received many national and international honours including, the Nasa Distinguished Public Service Medal (2001), and was elected to the US National Academy of Engineering and inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2010, along with the creators of Post-it notes; this prompted comments that it took two men to come up with adhesive stationery but one woman to discover how to keep satellites aloft and in place. Her personal and professional balancing act also gained recognition in 1980, when Harper's Bazaar magazine and the DeBeers Corporation gave her their Diamond Superwoman Award for returning to a successful career after starting a family.

In retirement, Brill travelled all over the US urging young women to follow her example by studying maths and science, and helped foster the careers of women in technical fields. The former president of the Society of Women Engineers, Jill Tietjen, said, "She was a mentor, a champion and a role model for so many of us. She was determined, absolutely determined to help young engineers and scientists get to the next step and get the awards and recognition they deserved."

Brill is survived by her children. Her husband died in 2010.

Yvonne Madelaine Claeys, scientist: born St Vital, Winnipeg, Canada 30 December 1924; married 1951 William Brill (died 2010; two sons, one daughter); died Princeton, New Jersey 27 March 2013.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Lou Reed distorted the truth about his upbringing, and since his death in 2013, biographers and memoirists have added to the myths
musicThe truth about Lou Reed's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths
Ed Miliband received a warm welcome in Chester
election 2015
Life and Style
Apple CEO Tim Cook announces the Apple Watch during an Apple special even
fashionIs the Apple Watch for you? Well, it depends if you want it for the fitness tech, or for the style
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own