Judith Love Cohen

History Uncovered Episode 87:
Judith Love Cohen: Savior Of Apollo 13 And Jack Black’s Mom

Published September 29, 2023

Before she became the mother of Jack Black, pioneering aerospace engineer Judith Love Cohen broke down barriers at NASA and secured her place in American history.

Everyone knows Jack Black. Disheveled and wild-eyed, an enthusiastic guitar player and a live-wire comedic actor, he’s delighted audiences both as a star in movies like School of Rock and as the lead vocalist for the comedy rock band Tenacious D.

But Jack Black is far from the most historic member of his family. That title belongs to his mother, Judith Love Cohen, a fearless aerospace engineer whose work played a crucial role in saving the Apollo 13 astronauts in April 1970.

Cohen grew up in Brooklyn, New York, in the 1930s and 1940s, when options for women were limited. Her mother and aunts worked at a dress factory, and Cohen entertained herself at home by sewing lace doilies. But she also hung on nearly every word uttered by her father, a soda salesman, as he explained geometric concepts like lines and angles using an ashtray.

These nightly lessons inspired a love of math in Cohen, who found her thoughts consumed with numbers and equations. Though Cohen felt isolated from her peers and lacked female role models, she mused about becoming a math teacher — even after a guidance counselor suggested that she go to finishing school and quote-unquote “learn to be a lady.”

Judith Love Cohen And Jack Black

Jack Black with his mother, Judith Love Cohen, the aerospace engineer whose work helped save the Apollo 13 astronauts.

Instead, Judith Love Cohen followed her dreams to Brooklyn College, and then all the way to the West Coast, where she earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree in electrical engineering at USC. When she graduated in 1957, Cohen was one of just eight women in a class of 800.

Cohen was also the mother of a growing family — as she had four children, including Jack Black — but she balanced motherhood and her burgeoning career. In fact, she even took a work problem to the hospital as she gave birth to Black, her youngest, and later called her boss to tell him that she’d solved the problem — and that, yes, the baby had been born too.

A pioneering engineer at a time when just one-half of one percent of all engineers were women, Judith Love Cohen proved herself a remarkable trailblazer time and again.

Perhaps her greatest moment came in 1970, when it was her work on the Abort Guidance System for the Apollo space program that helped bring the crew of Apollo 13 safely home after they suffered a catastrophic power loss in space.

Learn more about the incredible story of Judith Love Cohen.

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