From Ballet Shoes to Engineering Tools: The Extraordinary Journey of Judith Love Cohen
“My mother usually considered her work on the Apollo program to be the highlight of her career,” said Neil Siegel, an IBM Professor of Engineering Management at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering. “When disaster struck the Apollo 13 mission, it was the Abort-Guidance System that brought the astronauts home safely.”
The woman he was speaking of was Judith Love Cohen, creator of the Abort-Guidance System at NASA. Not only that, but one of her children, Jack Black, would go on to become a quite famous actor.
From a young age, Judith Love Cohen harbored a fascination for space. Born in Brooklyn, New York, on August 16, 1933, Cohen initially aspired to pursue a career in astronomy. However, the concept of a female astronomer had never crossed her path.
Cohen later said, “Girls weren’t encouraged to venture into such domains.” The only instance she witnessed a woman engaged in something captivating was through her math teacher. So, Cohen opted to become a math teacher herself.
Within the confines of her home, Cohen avidly absorbed her father’s teachings, particularly when he employed ashtrays to explain geometry. By the time she reached fifth grade, her peers paid her to solve their mathematical assignments. Undeterred by her counselor’s guidance, Cohen enrolled in Brooklyn College to study mathematics.
While there, Cohen discovered a passion for engineering, in addition to her existing ardor for math. Dancing and engineering became her initial passions. By the age of 19, she became a dancer in the Corps de Ballet of the New York Metropolitan Opera Ballet Company while studying engineering at Brooklyn’s engineering school. Towards the end of her first year, she crossed paths with Bernard Siegel, whom she subsequently married a few months later.
The newlyweds relocated to southern California, where they embarked on building their family. Despite giving birth to three children—Neil, Howard, and Rachel—Cohen persisted in her pursuit of knowledge. Neil Siegel later recollected, “She thrived on being occupied.”
By 1957, Cohen completed her undergraduate and graduate degrees in electrical engineering from USC. She then secured a position at Space Technology Laboratories, a NASA contractor later known as TRW, thus fulfilling her childhood aspiration.
“I ended up achieving the very thing I desired at the age of 10,” Cohen fondly reminisced.
Throughout her engineering career, she contributed to various projects, including the development of the guidance computer for the Minuteman missile, the Abort-Guidance System for the Apollo space program’s Lunar Excursion Module, and the ground system for the Tracking Data and Relay System Satellite, which operated in orbit for nearly 40 years before retirement.
Her involvement in the Apollo program was a career highlight, as she considered her work on the Abort-Guidance System crucial in ensuring the safe return of the Apollo 13 astronauts. She witnessed the astronauts expressing their gratitude to the TRW facility in Redondo Beach.
Concluding her engineering career, she took charge of systems engineering for the science ground facility of the Hubble Space Telescope.
Around 1964, she resumed dancing, indulging in recreational folk dancing, which she continued until the end of her life.
Judith and Bud divorced in the mid-1960s, leading her to marry Tom Black shortly thereafter. A few years later, her fourth child, Jack, was born. Remarkably, on the day of Jack’s birth, she went to her office, bringing along a computer printout of the problem she was working on. When it was time to head to the hospital, she informed her boss that she had resolved the issue. Oh, and of course, the baby was also born. Her involvement in the Apollo program was a career highlight, as she considered her work on the Abort-Guidance System crucial in ensuring the safe return of the Apollo 13 astronauts. She witnessed the astronauts expressing their gratitude to the TRW facility in Redondo Beach. Concluding her engineering career, she took charge of systems engineering for the science ground facility of the Hubble Space Telescope.
After her marriage to Tom ended in the late 1970s, she met and married David Katz, the love of her life.
Throughout her tenure, she tirelessly advocated for improved treatment of women in the workplace, introducing practices that are now considered routine, such as posting job openings internally and creating formal job descriptions. Her contributions significantly impacted equality in the workforce.
In the early 1990s, Judith retired from engineering and authored a book called “You Can Be a Woman Engineer,” aimed at inspiring eight- to ten-year-old girls to consider engineering careers. Faced with difficulties finding a publisher, she and David established their own book company, resulting in a series of titles, including “You Can Be a Woman Architect” (co-authored with her husband’s wife, a practicing architect), “You Can Be a Woman Astronomer,” and more. Judith sold over 100,000 copies of these books, conducted numerous in-person readings and seminars, and created lesson kits for others to do the same. David assisted on the books, illustrating them for his wife.
David and Judith enjoyed 35 years of marriage until her passing on July 25, 2016 in California
Bodner, M. (2022, February 26). Forgotten women in STEM: Judith Love Cohen. SciComm for everyone. https://scicommforeveryone.com/2022/03/02/forgotten-women-in-stem-judith-love-cohen/
Dobrijevic, D. (2022, October 10). Meteor Showers 2023: Where, when and how to see them. Space.com. Retrieved April 29, 2023, from Interesting. https://allthatsinteresting.com/judith-love-cohen
Kottke, J. (2019, May 4). Meet Aerospace Engineer Judith Love Cohen. kottke.org. https://kottke.org/19/05/meet-aerospace-engineer-judith-love-cohen
Siegel, N. (2016, July 29). In memory of Judith Love Cohen: Mother, wife, friend, author, engineer. USC Viterbi | School of Engineering. https://viterbischool.usc.edu/news/2016/07/in-memory-of-judith-love-cohen-mother-wife-friend-author-engineer/