Yvonne Brill – the Rocket Scientist

By Jaime Seltzer

Yvonne Brill was born in Manitoba in 1924. She received her bachelor’s degree in mathematics from the University of Manitoba in 1945 and her Master’s degree in Chemistry from the University of Southern California in 1951. She had truly wished to study engineering, but the University of Manitoba informed her that there was an outdoor camp for engineering students that had no accommodations for women, so she would have to choose some other major. Brill stayed upbeat about the whole debacle, saying that no one had the right degrees at the time and she ended up an engineer regardless of all that noise.

Like Katherine Johnson, her career began before rocket science existed as such: she started instead in airplanes. When her employer, Douglas Aircraft, was awarded the Project RAND contract, Yvonne became one of the first research analysts to work on rockets. Over the course of her work, she tested out different kinds of rocket fuel and calculated how fast and how hot the different fuels would burn. When the space race began in the late 1950s, Yvonne was in the thick of it, testing experimental fuels and designing and testing different rocket propulsion systems.

as of right now, there are hundreds hunks of metal and plastic in the sky, gathering data on the stars and planets, because Yvonne Brill helped show them the way.

Scientists and mathematicians make their livings calculating flight paths and trajectories and there is a lot of math done before a single rocket is fired, but things can and do go wrong in space. Initially, unmanned spacecraft had a multitude of backup systems to prevent the rocket from straying away from its fixed orbit, but these made the craft more cumbersome, and therefore more expensive to build. In the 1970s, Yvonne’s work led to the development of a single system to ensure an unmanned rocket would stay in a fixed orbit: the hydrazine thruster.

Hydrazine is a simple molecular compound that contains nitrogen and hydrogen atoms. The rocket sent an electrical current through the hydrazine, causing it to decompose into hydrogen gas and nitrogen gas. Then, the gases were pushed through a branching series of pipes pointing in different directions, causing the rocket to travel in the opposite direction of the expelled gas. The craft’s direction could be controlled by valves that governed which side was receiving more fuel (if both were receiving fuel, the craft would travel straight ahead). These valves could be opened and closed and the pressure of the system monitored from ground control. Yvonne’s design also allowed the thruster to function as a heat barrier to help protect a spacecraft or probe.

Yvonne Brill

Yvonne Brill and her Women in Science card.

Monopropellant thrusters like Brill’s hydrazine thruster became standard on satellites and all kinds of spacecraft; as of right now, there are hundreds hunks of metal and plastic in the sky, gathering data on the stars and planets, because Yvonne Brill helped show them the way. President Obama presented her with the National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 2011.

Yvonne’s obituary in the New York Times created something of a stir. The article emphasized her ability to cook a mean beef stroganoff as well as how she had followed her husband from job to job and city to city. (It mentioned she was a rocket scientist in the next paragraph.) Rather than Brill ‘following’ her husband wherever he went, the two sometimes lived apart for months at a time so that they could both do the work they loved. Until her death, Yvonne remained active in the scientific community, recommending young women in science for awards because she felt that women were often overlooked, and encouraging girls in high school to stick with science.

Berry, D. (2013, March 31). Awful New York Times Obit for Rocket Scientist Rhapsodizes About Her Beef Stroganoff. In: Jezebel. Retrieved from http://jezebel.com/5993068/new-york-times-obit-for-rocket-scientist-yvonne-brill-rhapsodizes-about-her-beef-stroganoff
Smith, M. (2013, May 30). Rocket Scientist and Inventor Yvonne Brill. In: Smithsonian – Blogs. Retrieved October 3, 2015 from http://blog.invention.smithsonian.org/2013/05/30/rocket-scientist-and-inventor-yvonne-brill/
Teitel, A. S. (2013, April 3). How Yvonne Brill’s Rocket Design Works. Motherboard. Retrieved October 3, 2015 from http://motherboard.vice.com/blog/yvonne-brill-shrank-the-world-was-also-great-cook

Posted in Women in Science and tagged , , .

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *