Yvonne C. Brill's Legacy Honored Written 16 October 2014

By Duane Hyland, AIAA Communications (2007-2018)

On Tuesday, 30 September, the legacy – both personal and technical – of Yvonne C. Brill, AIAA Honorary Fellow, pioneer of satellite propulsion technology, inventor of the Hydrazine Resistojet, and champion of female engineers the world over, was honored by numerous speakers taking part in the opening segment of the inaugural Yvonne C. Brill Lecture at the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) in Washington, DC.

C. D. “Dan” Mote, Jr., president of the NAE, began the ceremony by speaking of Brill’s “remarkable ingenuity and capacity to bring visions to life.” Mote thanked AIAA for collaborating with NAE to make the Yvonne C. Brill Lectureship a reality.

Steve Battel, president of Battel Engineering and an AIAA Associate Fellow, spoke next. Battel noted that Brill was a woman working in a man’s world, telling the audience that Brill, while at the University of Manitoba, Manitoba, Canada, “was not permitted to take engineering courses, so she took math and chemistry, instead.” Battel touted Brill as “creative,” and noting that she had “a lot of energy and ideas.” He pointed out that that Brill’s math and chemistry training “served her well as a systems engineer,” and that through her employment with numerous firms, including Douglas Aircraft, the RAND Corporation, MRC, and others, “it was her systems engineering training that really created her career opportunities.” Battel hailed Brill as a “visionary in many ways,” explaining “her baby was pulsed plasma technologies,” and that “she recognized in the late 1960s that power would be available in geosynchronous orbit, and that we would be able to use alternate technologies for it. Yvonne was the pioneer of all the electric propulsion satellites we see today.” Battel continued, “She recognized that if you are going to carry hydrazine, [you should know] it has an exothermic decomposition [that could be] heated up to 3,000 degrees [and] you would get larger thrust. This resulted in direct fuel savings and that was the genius and nobody has done it better yet using liquid propulsion.” Battel concluded, “All of the satellites in orbit today owe their flight to Yvonne!”

Following Battel, Jill Tietjen, president and CEO of Colorado-based Technically Speaking, Inc., spoke. Tietjen recalled Brill’s modesty, especially her skepticism that she would be the “Yvonne Brill who won the 2009 John Fritz Medal from the American Academy of Engineering Societies,” and Tietjen assured her “that yes, that is you.” Tietjen went on to extoll Brill as one who “made a significant difference in the world – especially for women, as she nominated many [for honors], mentored many, and her efforts boosted the self-confidence of all nominees.” She noted that “her legacy was her kindness and good words.” Tietjen explained that “Brill was passionate about advancing [the careers] of other women, working tirelessly from 1986 to the week of her death in 2013, to nominate women to the Society of Women Engineers,” and for the awards of a wide array of professional societies, including “SWE, NAE, AIAA, and others.” Tietjen shared several statements from women whom Brill had helped during their careers – all praised her as “legendary,” “fiercely committed to SWE,” “brilliant and a great mentor,” leaving no doubt to the effect that Brill had on many within the aerospace community.

Tietjen also talked about Brill’s commitment to students, nothing that she “influenced thousands of students to achieve their academic pursuit. If students needed encouragement to jump the next hurdle to stay in engineering, she was there to help them do it. She shared her wisdom and incredible energy with students and professionals alike.” Tietjen concluded her address by noting, “She could always be counted on to roll up her sleeves and get the job done. She truly understood the words of anthropologist Margaret Meade: Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has,” and stating, “the world is better for having had Yvonne in it.”

Brill’s son Matthew spoke next, first thanking the attendees and sponsors of the event and introducing some of the Brill family members in the audience. He then spoke about how “extremely pleased” his mother would have been to see “the students here today, because a major focus of her life was mentorship and helping young people get into and succeed in technical careers.” Discussing his mother’s influence as an inventor, he relayed an anecdote from the National Inventors Hall of Fame induction dinner in 2010: “At the dinner, my parents were seated next to Mr. Kappos, who was head of the U.S. Patent and Trade Office at the time, and my dad leaned over and said ‘I have 17 patents and Yvonne only has one, so when do I get into the Hall of Fame?’” Brill also honored his parent’s marriage, noting that “Bill and Yvonne Brill were a package deal, a team that was married for 59 years. They were very proud and very supportive of each other’s accomplishments.” He amused the audience when he stated that the Brill kids really didn’t understand that their mom was “a little different than other moms, … until, the FBI came around asking questions about Mom so she could get her top secret clearance for the propulsion system work on a U.S. Navy satellite.”

Brill spoke passionately about his mother’s efforts to inspire young women to take math and science in high school, relating that she “would travel around the country talking to young high school students, especially young women, about engineering, reminding them, “If you don’t take math and science in high school you will have a hard time pursuing engineering or science degrees in college.” Brill reminded the audience that when his mother was in school, “young women were told to take home economics or typing, instead of math and science.”

Brill concluded his talk by stating what he believes his mother would wish that people would remember as “part of her legacy, … that she helped others, particularly women pursue careers in engineering, to help more established female engineers get the professional recognition that she felt they had earned, to inspire young engineers to continue with their careers in engineering regardless of the roadblocks such as discrimination and bad management.” And that she hoped “her success as a woman pioneer of aerospace would make future career paths for women engineers easier, in that those future women would only be judged in the quality and excellence of their work and technical contributions.”

The program’s final speaker was AIAA Honorary Fellow John Anderson, who discussed Yvonne Brill’s long-time membership in AIAA, from the day she joined the American Rocket Society in 1955 through her death in 2013. Anderson noted that Brill was the first woman whom AIAA made an Honorary Fellow, elevating her to that role “in 2007,” and that “she broke the ice” for other women to be made Honorary Fellows after her. Anderson also explained that in many of his interactions with Brill she noted that she was “the only woman in the room,” calling attention to the dearth of females in engineering—something that Brill worked tirelessly to correct. Anderson concluded, hailing Brill as “one of the motivators” who had brought about a change in the number of females pursuing engineering today.

All of the program’s speakers made sure that the audience understood that Yvonne C. Brill was an innovator, a champion for women, a mom, a wife, and a person who changed our industry forever.