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Forgotten Women: Yvonne Brill

When we look to the stars, it’s not often that satellites are the first things that we think of. Over 2000 of them currently orbit the planet, a vast number of which are communications satellites. These satellites are meant to relay signals for television, phone, radio, and internet connections, giving us the ability to contact just about whoever we want, wherever they may be on the planet. It’s a lot better than sending a telegram, right?

Despite how pivotal satellites are to our way of life, we don’t often think about the thousands of man-hours of innovation that it took to get them into orbit and keep them there. It’s a shame, especially considering that some of the most important innovations in satellite technology came, not just from man-hours, but from woman-hours.

In the 1970s, a scientist named Yvonne Brill invented what would become a staple in the satellite communications industry. She invented the hydrazine resistojet, a single-fuel thruster capable of correcting the orbit of an unmanned satellite. Errors in orbital trajectory could be corrected with a single thrust system rather than with a series of several heavy, finicky backup thrusters, as had been the case before. With her elegant solution, Brill solved a major problem in the satellite industry, creating an uncomplicated answer to a problem that was hindering further advancement in spaceflight. In 2011, this invention was mentioned as Brill was awarded the National Medal of Technology and Innovation

Part of Brill’s patent for the hydrazine resistojet.

Yvonne Brill’s achievements did not end at the hydrazine resistojet. Brill enjoyed a long career of innovation and pivotal contributions to spaceflight. She contributed to Tiros, the first weather satellite. She helped to design the rockets for Nova’s missions to the moon and the Mars Observer and worked on the rocket motor for the space shuttle program. In 1985 she became a fellow in the Society of Women Engineers, and a year later received the organization’s highest honor. She was awarded the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal in 2001, and the AIAA Wyld Propulsion Award in 2002. She was considered the only female rocket scientist in the United States in the mid-1940s.

When later asked about her choice to work in that all-male field, Brill is quoted as having said, “I reckoned they would not invent rules to discriminate against one person.” Despite facing her own share of prejudice, Brill continued to remain an innovator in her field and paved the way for other women to do so. She was known for nominating other women for professional awards, writing letters recommending female scientists even up until the week she passed away.​

Yvonne Brill, receiving the National Medal of Technology and Innovation from President Obama. 

It was a shame, then, that when Yvonne Brill passed in 2013, the New York Times published an obituary for her that 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.” While the article has since been changed, its lede about her cooking skills was a source of outrage for many readers. One commenter remarked that by beginning the piece with comments about Brill’s home-life rather than her accomplishments, the tone of the piece shifts from “this woman was a great rocket scientist” to “this woman was a great mom and dutiful wife and also a rocket scientist.” It was sub-par representation for such an unparalleled engineer.

I am disappointed to say that I only discovered Brill’s work through the outrage over the New York Times article. I had never heard her name mentioned in conjunction with the hydrazine resistojet, and heard no coverage of her being awarded the National Medal of Technology and Innovation. I am happy, however, that I have had the opportunity to learn about her at all. Being able to learn about not only her achievements but her efforts to bring other women into the field have given me a tremendous amount of appreciation for her legacy in rocket science. Yvonne Brill truly was brilliant at what she did.

 

Gabrielle Paniccia is a New York-based writer and undergraduate biochemistry major currently attending Stony Brook University.
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