Yvonne Brill

Yvonne Madelaine Brill (née Claeys; December 30, 1924 – March 27, 2013) was a Canadian American rocket and jet propulsion engineer. She is responsible for inventing the Electrothermal Hydrazine Thruster (EHT/Resistojet), a fuel-efficient rocket thruster that keeps today’s satellites in orbit, and holds a patent for its invention.[1] During her career she was involved in a broad range of national space programs in the United States, including NASA and the International Maritime Satellite Organization.[2][3]

Yvonne Brill
Yvonne Brill.jpg
Brill in 2011
Yvonne Madalaine Claeys

(1924-12-30)December 30, 1924
DiedMarch 27, 2013(2013-03-27) (aged 88)
Alma materUniversity of Manitoba, University of Southern California
OccupationAerospace Engineer Rocket Scientist
AwardsAIAA Wyld Propulsion Award (2002)
John Fritz Medal (2009)
Inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame (2010)
National Medal of Technology (2010)

Early lifeEdit

Born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, Yvonne Brill, is a first-generation Canadian, as her parents were immigrants from Belgium.[4] She was inspired to attend school by Amelia Earhart, the first woman pilot to fly across the Atlantic Ocean. When she was young, her father encouraged her to open a shop in their hometown, while her high school science teacher told her that a woman wouldn't get anywhere in science. She ignored both. Yvonne was the first in her family to go to college, graduating from the University of Manitoba in 1945 at the top of her class with a bachelor’s degree in both chemistry and mathematics (Int. Engineering).[5] She had originally applied to their engineering program at 18, but was denied by the school, as they claimed that their mandatory summer camp did not have the necessary facilities to host female students.[1] Her denial to Manitoba’s school of engineering forever inspired her to encourage women in the sciences, and in her, forged an unwavering confidence against gender-based discrimination.[1] She went on to study at the University of Southern California, where she took night classes and graduated in 1951 with a master's degree in chemistry.[1]

Personal lifeEdit

After completing her master's degree at the University of Southern California, Yvonne met William Brill, a research chemist, at RAND. The two were married within a year, and they soon moved East for William’s job at FMC Corporation.[5][6]

The couple would move wherever work took him, and Yvonne later began working part-time jobs so that she could care for their two sons, Matthew and Joseph, and a daughter, Naomi.[7][5]


Following her graduation from USC, Brill began working at Douglas Aircraft in 1945 after being recruited despite her lack of an engineering degree. Her main interest was in engineering, but she transferred to Douglas’ chemistry department to work with rocket propellants, rocket engines, and ramjets. She then began working on the Project RAND contract at Douglas where they focused on a new field of rockets, including the first American satellite.[6][8] It is believed that Brill was the only female rocket scientist in the 1940s, which was partly what attracted her to this line of work.[9][1]

After raising her children and returning to full-time work, she took a position at RCA’s rocket subsidiary, Astro Electronics. Here, she developed the concept for a new rocket engine, inventing the Electrothermal Hydrazine Thruster (EHT/Resistojet) for which she holds US Patent No. 3,807,657. Her innovation resulted in not only higher engine performance, but also increased the reliability of the propulsion system. She also proposed the use of a single propellant because of the value and simplicity that it would provide. The reduction in propellant weight requirements enabled either increased payload capability or extended mission life. The Resistojet proved to be more suitable for controlling satellites’ orbit and their communication.

Her invention became a standard in the industry and has translated into millions of dollars of increased revenue for commercial communications satellite owners.[10] Large aeronautics and aviation companies including, but not limited to, RCA, GE, Lockheed Martin, and Orbital Sciences have used the EHT in their communication satellites.[8]

Brill contributed to the propulsion systems of TIROS, the first weather satellite; Nova, a series of rocket designs that were used in American Moon missions; Explorer 32, the first upper-atmosphere satellite; and the Mars Observer, which in 1992 almost entered a Mars orbit before losing communication with Earth.[11]

Between the years of 1981 and 1983, Brill also contributed to development of the rocket engines of NASA’s space shuttles. She finished her career at NASA, overseeing the Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Program and on the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel.[1]

Awards and honorsEdit

In light of her brilliance in the field of rocket science and subsequent contributions, Brill was the recipient of many prestigious awards and founded scholarships and a lectureship.

  • The NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal (2001).  This is the highest honor that NASA awards to non-government employees who demonstrate a level of excellence that has made a profound impact to NASA mission success.[6]

Brill was elected to the National Academy of Engineering (1987).[16] She was also named fellow of The Society of Women Engineers (SWE) in 1985 and received its highest honor, the Achievement Award, the following year.

The Yvonne C. Brill Lectureship of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) is named in her honor and presented annually.[17] She spent the last twenty years of her life promoting women in science and engineering and nominated them for awards and prizes she thought they deserved.[18]

Death and legacyEdit

At age 88, Yvonne Brill died of complications of breast cancer in Princeton, New Jersey.

An obituary of Brill published in the March 30, 2013, issue of the New York Times drew much news coverage not necessarily because of her remarkable accomplishments in the field of rocket science, but due to apparent sexism.[6] It originally began: "She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children".[6] Only several paragraphs later would you be able to find out that she was actually working part-time while raising her children, and then returning to full-time employment that lead to her fame for her research and innovations.[6] The obituary was heavily criticized for leading with and overemphasizing Brill's gender and family life, rather than her remarkable scientific and career achievements[6] and was cited as an example of an article that failed the Finkbeiner test.[6] The Times later dropped the reference to her cooking and changed the lead of the article.[19][20]

Brill’s legacy has forever impacted the present and future of rocket science, as her research and contributions to rocket propulsion systems, as well as her invention of the electrothermal hydrazine thruster have and will continue to help us to learn and understand more about the final frontier.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c d e f "Yvonne Brill | The Canadian Encyclopedia". www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca. Retrieved 2022-12-07.
  2. ^ QMI AGENCY, "Pioneer Canadian rocket scientist dead at age 88", The Toronto Sun, March 27, 2013.
  3. ^ Invent Now, "HALL OF FAME / Inventor Profile" Archived April 7, 2013, at the Wayback Machine, Invent Now, Accessed March 27, 2013.
  4. ^ Weil, Martin (March 31, 2013). "Yvonne Brill, pioneer in spacecraft propulsion, dies at 88". The Washington Post. Retrieved 12 March 2014.
  5. ^ a b c Fourtané, Susan (2018-07-30). "51 Female Inventors and Their Inventions That Changed the World and Impacted the History In a Revolutionary Way". interestingengineering.com. Retrieved 2022-12-07.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h Center, Smithsonian Lemelson (2013-05-30). "Rocket Scientist and Inventor Yvonne Brill". Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation. Retrieved 2022-12-07.
  7. ^ "Yvonne Brill". USC News. Retrieved 2019-03-23.
  8. ^ a b "Yvonne Madelaine Brill". She Thought It. 2018-02-22. Retrieved 2022-12-07.
  9. ^ "Yvonne Brill | Canadian-born American aerospace engineer rocket scientist". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2020-01-31.
  10. ^ United States Patent and Trademark Office, "Yvonne C. Brill, RCA Astro Electronics", United States Patent and Trademark Office, Accessed March 30, 2013.
  11. ^ Martin, Douglas. "Yvonne Brill, a Pioneering Rocket Scientist, Dies at 88", The New York Times, March 31, 2013. Accessed March 31, 2013.
  12. ^ "Wyld Propulsion Award". www. Retrieved 2022-12-07.
  13. ^ "Wyld Propulsion Award Recipients". American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Archived from the original on December 1, 2017. Retrieved April 1, 2013.
  14. ^ "The John Fritz Medal winners". www.tbp.org. Retrieved 2022-12-07.
  15. ^ "National Medal of Technology and Innovation (NMTI)". www.uspto.gov. Retrieved 2022-12-07.
  16. ^ "Deceased Members - Ms. Yvonne C. Brill". National Academy of Engineering. Retrieved April 1, 2013.
  17. ^ Hyland, Duane (August 11, 2014). "Dr. Adam Steltzner Awarded Inaugural Yvonne C. Brill Lectureship". American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Retrieved August 12, 2014.
  18. ^ "Know Your Scientist – Yvonne Brill". Futurism. Retrieved 2020-01-31.
  19. ^ "NYT Leads Obit For Brilliant Rocket Scientist With A Nod To Her Cooking And Parenting". BuzzFeed. Retrieved 2015-10-14.
  20. ^ "NY Times' Outrageous Obituary". Huffington Post. March 31, 2013.

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