Though often glossed over in history books as hidden figures, the women of the Apollo space program are finally being recognized for their contributions to space exploration. Aerospace engineer Judith Love Cohen is one of them. As one of the first female engineers at TRW (later acquired by Northrop Grumman), she helped to build the Abort Guidance System that brought Lovell, Haise and Swigert back to Earth on the Apollo 13’s Odyssey module. She also worked on guidance computing for Minuteman missiles, ground systems for the Tracking and Data Relay Satellites, and the science ground station for the Hubble Space Telescope.
Her work was essential to early years’ successes and even now continues to benefit space exploration. What’s more is she’s also inspiring the female engineers of tomorrow.
The Only Woman in Math and Engineering
Judith Love Cohen was born in 1933 in Brooklyn, New York. An interview in the LA Times notes that, by fifth grade, she was the go-to person in her class for help with math homework. In middle school, she was the only girl taking intermediate algebra.
Despite discouragement from career advisors who told her that math was not for young women, Cohen persevered with her passion. She enrolled in engineering school following a brief period being intent on working as a math teacher. Working as a junior engineer during the day and attending USC Viterbi School of Engineering at night, she gained her Bachelor’s in 1957 and her master’s in 1962.
One of the Few Female Engineers
After graduating, Cohen joined Space Technology Laboratories (later, TRW), working there until her retirement in 1990. She worked on several notable projects that still impact space exploration today.
She was on the team that created the ground systems for the Tracking and Data Relay Satellites (TDRS) that kept NASA and others in contact with space craft, high-altitude balloons and the International Space Station, among others. Forbes describes how the satellites replaced ground relay stations for communications and data to increase the amount of in-contact time between ground control and rocket launches. The U.S. Antarctic Program notes that TDRS provided initial communications support for the Amundsen-Scott South Pole research station.
Visualizing the Stars
Judith Love Cohen’s work also helped astronomers work with the giant Hubble Space Telescope. In a video by Cascade Pass, the multimedia publishing company she founded with her husband David Katz, Cohen explained that by listening to the astronomers who would be using the Hubble, engineers were able to add valuable functionality. Her work enabled real-time controls to focus, change filters, plan observations and collect images.
She was also involved in colorizing the images collected through the various filters — when you look at the amazing images of galaxies in deep space, you’re looking at Cohen’s work.
The Apollo Program: The Highlight of Her Career
According to her obituary, written by her son Neil Siegel for USC Viterbi, Cohen considered her work on the Apollo Space Program as the highlight of her career. The Abort Guidance System (AGS) computer, developed to keep the lunar module safe during its descent to the moon’s surface, became essential to keeping the three astronauts of the Apollo 13 mission alive. IEEE Spectrum magazine describes how, when an oxygen tank exploded and damaged the command module, ground control instructed the three astronauts to move to the lunar module as a lifeboat. The AGS as a standalone computer kept critical systems online as crew and mission control worked round the clock to bring the mission home safely.
Another initiative was the return-to-Earth orbit. In a BBC Science Focus article, Siegel describes how Cohen lobbied hard with NASA to include this in the mission planning — and thankfully so, as it played a critical part in bringing the crew home safely.
Judith Love Cohen and the Female Engineers of Tomorrow
Although Cohen retired from engineering in 1990, she never forgot being the only woman in math and engineering classes. Noticing the success that her husband had in using rap music to connect with students in his work as a teacher, Cohen wondered if she could somehow encourage more girls to become engineers. So, she wrote about her experiences, and Katz created the illustrations. Her book, You Can Be A Woman Engineer, uses Cohen’s story to inspire girls to study engineering.
With the book’s success, the couple founded Cascade Pass, releasing more than 20 titles highlighting careers that weren’t often recommended for girls in school. At the time, it was difficult to pitch a book with the word “woman” in the title. Katz describes Cohen as a pioneer with the books and shares how they traveled across the country promoting the titles. They also spent time talking with Brownies and Girl Scout groups to inspire girls to think beyond the traditional for future careers.
“Judith translated engineering into terms the girls would understand,” he shares. “She enjoyed breaking it down for them, and getting the girls excited about the subject.”
According to Katz, Cohen’s view was that although women and men have their differences, a woman could do anything a man could, and that included math and engineering.
“I think she just wanted to make it easier for the next generations — for it to be easier for them and to be more accepted.”
Being on the forefront of change, especially regarding space, physics, and engineering has been part of the Northrop Grumman culture for generations. Click here to search jobs in these areas of scientific innovation.