The Story of the Female Engineer Behind Apollo 13

Aerospace engineer and unsung hero Judith Love Cohen worked for NASA's most important projects, including the pioneer Apollo 13 and Hubble missions.

The Woman Post | Carolina Rodríguez Monclou

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Judith Love Cohen did most of her work as an engineer on NASA projects. However, she also spent time as a ballet dancer at the New York Metropolitan Ballet Company. Cohen wrote and published books to encourage girls to enter STEM fields and was a lifelong advocate for women's rights in the workplace.

At age 19, while studying engineering at Brooklyn College, she was also a dancer. She even got a scholarship in college for her excellence. There was no doubt of Cohen's talent in diverse fields.

It was at that time that she met her first husband, Bernard Siegel, also an engineer. They moved to Southern California, where she completed her bachelor's degree and master's degree in electrical engineering at the University of Southern California. She then worked full-time as an engineer while having her first three children.

Cohen also got into dancing at that time but recreationally. Judith divorced Siegel in the mid-60s and soon after married another man named Tom Black.

At that moment, she was working on the abort guidance system in the lunar excursion module for the Apollo space program. She created the system that ended up bringing the Apollo 13 astronauts home safely in 1970.

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A few months before that fateful mission, Cohen had another memorable day at work. In August of 1969, when she was expecting the birth of her fourth child, she went to work as usual. Judith finally went to the hospital only when she absolutely had to. As her older son Neil recounts, "When it was time to go to the hospital, she took with her a computer printout of the problem she was working on. Later that day, she called her boss and told him that she had solved the problem. And… oh, yes, the baby was born, too," reports Vulture.

The baby was Jack Black. This remarkably accomplished engineer who helped save the Apollo 13 astronauts is also the mother of the lead singer of Tenacious D. Without her, the world wouldn't have the iconic movie School of Rock.

Her strong bond with Jack Black, along with his couple of viral moments over the past few weeks, is why her story has been making the rounds again. Nevertheless, Judith's story it's remarkable on its own.

Going into work on the day she was giving birth and even taking her work with her to the hospital room might have been a sign of her enthusiasm for her job. However, it may also have been the reality of how few women worked as engineers back then. Also, maternity policies may not have even existed in her department for her to take advantage of.

Judith was a tireless advocate for women's treatment in the workplace, especially in STEM fields. Her son Neil credits her with implementing policies like formal job descriptions for every position in the company and posting job openings internally, practices that create equality and transparency for employees.

Even after Cohen retired with one of her final projects being running the systems engineering for the ground facility of the NASA Hubble Space Telescope, she kept up the fight to make sure future generations of women would be treated better. In the 90s, she wrote a series of STEM-focused middle-grade books for girls with titles like "You Can Be a Woman Engineer" and "You Can Be a Woman Chemist." The legacy of Cohen is like her: wonderful and extraordinary.

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