Judith Cohen: Saving Apollo 13

Apollo 13 kept the world on edge when an oxygen bank ruptured in the service module. Life support systems were disabled. The solution was to use the backup systems on the lunar module. Millions of people rejoiced when Apollo 13 splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, and the crew was saved.

The drama of Apollo 13 has been recounted in film and the decision to use the backup systems on the lunar module is given as an example of American ingenuity. Unfortunately, the name Judith Cohen is rarely part of the story.

Judith Cohen was born in 1933 to Jewish immigrants who feared for their safety in Russia. Early on, her talent for math became very evident. But she was also outstanding in ballet, performing with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet company. She was an early example of the bogus right brain/left brain myth.

She began her college education at Brooklyn College but left after two years when she was married. She and her husband moved to California where she got a job as a junior engineer. She attended the University of Southern California at night. She was the only female in the School of Engineering.

After graduation, she got a job with Space Technology Laboratories. She began working Minuteman Missile and then moved to the Abort-Guidance System (AGS) for the Apollo program. It was the AGS that brought the Apollo astronauts back to Earth safely.

She was the mother of four children. One of her children was born at the time she was dealing with a difficult problem at work. The morning after the birth of her son. She called her boss to tell him she had solved the problem. The son was Jack Black, an actor and musician.

When she retired, she created Cascade Press, a publishing company focused on children’s books. She became an advocate for girls to pursue STEM careers. She also published books for children on positive environmental practices.

The story of the Apollo 13 mission has been told in print and in film. We marvel at the ingenuity of NASA to find a way to bring the crew home. The untold story is of Judith Cohen who provided the technical capability that enabled the crew to return to Earth safely.

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“Having a back-up plan is not an admission of defeat but one of success, no matter what.” – Anonymous

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