Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Rocket pioneer has city roots

Awarded U.S. medal of honour by Obama

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When U.S. President Barack Obama draped a medal of honour around Yvonne Brill's neck at the White House recently, some former Winnipeggers proclaimed the pioneer rocket scientist a Winnipegger to her roots.

"My co-worker here in Denver knows of my Winnipeg heritage and proudly informed me that his mom, Yvonne Brill (received) the National Medal of Technology and Innovation from President Obama in a White House ceremony Oct. 21," a former Winnipegger wrote in a recent email.

Obama honoured Brill and five others as recipients of the National Medal of Technology and Innovation. He awarded another five the National Medal of Science. The awards are the highest honours for scientists, engineers and inventors in the United States.

"Even though these folks have not sought out the kind of celebrity that lands you on the cover of People magazine, the truth is today's honourees have made a bigger difference in our lives than most of us will ever realize," Obama told the awards ceremony.

Brill, 87, lives in New Jersey and is retired.

She has fond memories 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," Brill said.

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

Brill's engineering feats helped fuel the American race into space during the height of the Cold War.

Her work is still credited as a reason satellites are capable of geosynchronous orbit -- steady rotations around the planet.

She graduated with a bachelor of science degree from the University of Manitoba in 1945 and headed to Santa Monica, Calif., to take a job at Douglas Aircraft.

"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.

That work laid the foundations for an American institution.

"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."

Brill loved her work in New Jersey at RCA AstroElectronics, now a division of Lockheed Martin.

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

Today, Inmarsat is a network with 11 satellites that enable telecommunications worldwide.

alexandra.paul@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 27, 2011 A2

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