Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Rejected by U of M, former Winnipegger became rocket scientist

Born in St. Vital, Brill developed propulsion system for NASA

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NEW YORK, N.Y. -- Yvonne Brill, a Winnipeg-born rocket scientist who invented a propulsion system to help keep communications satellites from falling out of orbit, has died.

She was raised in St. Vital and attended the University of Manitoba until she was denied admission to the College of Engineering because the college lacked "accommodations for women" at a required outdoor engineering camp.

"You just have to be cheerful about it and not get upset when you get insulted," she once said.

After the U of M barred her from the engineering program, she left Winnipeg for California and studied mathematics and chemistry instead, graduating at the top of her class.

Her lack of an engineering degree did not prevent her from getting a job with Douglas Aircraft in Santa Monica, Calif.

She died on Wednesday in Princeton, N.J., at the age of 88.

The rocket system she developed in the early 1970s became the industry standard, and it was the achievement U.S. President Barack Obama mentioned in 2011 in presenting Brill with America's National Medal of Technology and Innovation.

In 1980, Harper's Bazaar magazine and the DeBeers Corporation gave the pioneering scientist their Diamond Superwoman award for returning to a successful career after starting a family.

Brill is believed to have been the only woman in the United States who was actually doing rocket science in the mid-1940s, when she worked on the first designs for an American satellite.

From 1981 to 1983, she worked for NASA developing the rocket motor for the space shuttle, and in 2010 she was inducted into the U.S. National Inventors Hall of Fame.

In a 2011 interview with the Free Press, Brill said she has fond memories of growing up in Winnipeg and visiting her parents as a young mother with her little daughter.

"Indeed I am from Winnipeg, actually St. Vital, which is a suburb of Winnipeg. There may be some people in my old neighbourhood who remember me," she said.

Her maiden name was Claeys and her parents were immigrants who came to Winnipeg separately from Flanders in Belgium. Her dad was a carpenter.

She graduated with a bachelor of science degree from the U of M in 1945.

"After the war with Japan in 1945, I was transferred to aerodynamics at Douglas.

"There, I participated in the Army Air Corps' secret proposal to put up an unmanned Earth-orbiting spacecraft," Brill recounted.

"The contract was awarded to Douglas on July 1, 1946, to become Project Rand, the original think-tank. It later became the RAND Corporation," Brill said.

"I have been in rocket, ramjet and/or turbojet propulsion ever since."

She raised three children and in 1986 joined the United Nations' pioneering satellite space agency, the Maritime Satellite Organization.

The New York Times responded to a chorus of critics on Saturday after it published an obituary about Brill that led with her accomplishments as a wife and mother.

Under the headline, Yvonne Brill, pioneering rocket scientist, dies At 88, the lead paragraph read: "She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children. 'The world's best mom,' her son Matthew said."

Some readers tweeted their dissatisfaction, making fun of the Times' inclusion of her cooking skills and wondering if an obituary for a male rocket scientist would lead with anything but his professional accomplishments.

Later, the Times dropped the beef stroganoff reference and changed the lead of the online obituary to: "She was a brilliant rocket scientist who followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children. 'The world's best mom,' her son Matthew said."

 

-- Associated Press, with Free Press files

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 1, 2013 A4

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Updated on Monday, April 1, 2013 at 12:32 PM CDT: Tweaks headline.

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