Rocket scientistYvonne Brill

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A Canadian, Brill was denied admission to the College of Engineering at the University of Manitoba because the college lacked accommodations for women at its “engineering camp,” which was required to graduate. So she moved to California to study math and chemistry, and earned a master’s degree in the latter at USC. She worked at Douglas Aircraft, RAND, and various other companies, including a brief stint at NASA. “Nobody had the right degrees back then, so it didn’t matter” that her degree was in chemistry, she said later. “I didn’t have engineering, but the engineers didn’t have the chemistry and math.”

Brill was, literally, a rocket scientist, and a well-known one. In 1972 she developed the hydrazine resistojet, a small rocket that helps keep satellites in the correct orbit. It was her idea to use a single propellant — the hydrazine — rather than the more common fuel plus an oxidizer. Her design not only allowed for higher engine performance, but also increased reliability. The reduction in propellant weight resulted in two positives: increased payload capability, and/or extended mission life. Her thruster design was used on the first weather satellite, Tiros, the space shuttle, missions to other planets, and is still standard on satellites today. She was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1987, awarded the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal in 2001, inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2010, and awarded the National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 2011. Why, in the 1940s, did she decide blaze a trail as a female rocket scientist? “I reckoned they would not invent rules to discriminate against one person,” she said later. Throughout her career, Brill would speak at schools to encourage girls to become engineers and scientists, and to study math. Until the week before her death, she still wrote letters of recommendation for women wanting to enter scientific careers. Mrs. Brill, as she preferred to be called, died March 27 in Princeton, N.J., from breast cancer. She was 88.

From This is True for 31 March 2013