Judith Love Cohen was a most remarkable woman. The women in her family worked at her Great Uncle Harry’s dress factory in Brooklyn. Judith was expected to follow the same path once she grew old enough. As a child, Judith was taught to sew lace doilies at home as part of her occupational preparation. Her father used ashtrays to teach her lines, angles, and equations of basic geometry. The women in the family thought these skills would come in handy and improve her sewing skills.
Judith quickly learned all her father knew about geometry, and then some. By the time Judith was in the fifth grade, she earned her own money by charging some of the kids at school a fee for doing their math homework. When she reached junior high school, she was the only female taking intermediate algebra. In high school, she won a state scholarship to study math at Brooklyn College. Judith considered becoming a math teacher. Judith believed she could accomplish anything.
In the 1940s, however, there was a definite dividing line between the occupations of men and women. Rarely were these lines crossed. As Judith began making plans for college her high school guidance counselor explained the gender specific occupations and told her that “Girls don’t go into math or science.” “You know, Judy,” said the guidance counselor, “I think you ought to go to a nice finishing school and learn to be a lady.”
Apparently, Brooklyn College was unaware of these gender specific lines. For two years, she studied math at Brooklyn College. Her boyfriend at the time encouraged her to change her major from math to engineering. Judith recalled that she “had never even heard of engineering as a field.” After two years at Brooklyn College, she and her first husband moved to California. She continued her education in the engineering program at the University of Southern California and worked as a junior engineer for North American Aviation. Judith was one of only eight women in her graduating class of 800 to earn a degree in engineering. In 1957, Judith began working at Space Technology Laboratories which eventually became TRW.
In the late 1990s and 2000s, Judith wrote a series of books entitled, “You Can Be a Woman ______.” The list of normally male-dominated occupations in the book series included, not surprisingly, engineer, architect, paleontologist, chemist, marine biologist, botanist, astronomer, meteorologist, oceanographer, entomologist, animator, zoologist, Egyptologist, and many, many more. To inspire young girls, Judith explained that “being a chemical engineer is not very different from cooking. Making gasoline is not very different from making Jello. Engineering involves using cleverness and using your brain to make things work better or do things in a different way.”
While at Space Technology Laboratories, Judith worked on the guidance computer for the LGM-30 Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile, the Abort-Guidance System in the Apollo Lunar Module, the Hubble Space Telescope, and NASA’s Lunar Excursion Module. On the afternoon of April 11, 1970, astronauts Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise blasted off from Earth in an Apollo rocket. Their mission was to be the third crew to land on the moon. Three days into the mission, Jack Swigert activated switches to “stir the oxygen tanks.” 95 seconds later, they hear a loud bang. The explosion vented a large portion of the astronaut’s oxygen supply into space. Apollo 13 had to abort its mission to the moon. NASA’s new mission was to bring the crew home alive. The spacecraft’s Abort Guidance System, which Judith helped design and build, plotted a course which slingshot the spacecraft around the moon and back to the Earth. Finally, on April 17, 1970, Apollo 13 splashed down in the Pacific Ocean. Judith considered her work on the Apollo space program to be the highlight of her career. A few days after returning safely to the Earth, the three astronauts visited the TRW facility to personally thank them for their work on the Abort Guidance System which saved their lives. Judith was among those the astronauts thanked.
Just nine months before the launch of Apollo 13, August 28, 1969, Judith, then nine months pregnant, was in her office at TWR troubleshooting a problem with the Abort Guidance System. She began having labor pains but continued to try to work on the problem. Her determination to resolve the issue intensified along with her labor pains. Through the pain, Judith had the concentration to solve the problem. Only then did she go to the hospital where she delivered a healthy baby boy.
Judith Love Cohen’s contributions to science have largely been overlooked. Because of her determination to work in a field traditionally dominated by men, and because of her determination to solve an engineering problem while in labor, which saved the lives of three astronauts, and because she authored books designed to encourage young girls to consider different career fields normally filled by men, Judith Love Cohen should be held in high esteem. What a woman!
Oh yeah, the baby she was in labor with while she was solving the engineering problem… If you have seen the films King Kong, the Jumanji sequels, School of Rock, and Nacho Libre, you know him too. He is the actor, comedian, and musician Thomas Jacob “Jack” Black.
1. The Los Angeles Times, June 1, 1995, p.188.
2. The Signal, December 9, 1996, p.8.
3. The Los Angeles Times, September 6, 1999, p.137.