Fact Check

Did Jack Black's Mom Help Design NASA System That Saved Apollo 13 Crew?

Judith Love Cohen's work with NASA extended beyond the Apollo program.

Published Dec 20, 2023

Image Via Twitter
Jack Black's mom was Judith Love Cohen, a NASA engineer who helped create the abort-guidance system that rescued the Apollo 13 astronauts.

In mid-December 2023, the X account Historic Vids posted a claim that regularly goes viral on social media: that Jack Black's mom "played a significant role in the development of the Abort-Guidance System, which was instrumental in rescuing the Apollo 13 astronauts during their ill-fated mission in 1970."  This claim often includes the assertion that she was so dedicated to her NASA work that she "took a printout of a problem she was working on to the hospital" on the day Jack Black was born.

Posts on Reddit with similar or identical language have gone viral in the past, and appear to originate with a story written by Jason Kottke in 2019. Their assertions are true.

As described by her son, University of Southern California engineering professor Neil Siegel (Jack Black's half-brother) in an 2016 obituary he penned, Cohen's "first passions were dancing and engineering," and "by age 19, she was a dancer in the Corps de Ballet of the New York Metropolitan Opera Ballet Company, and a student in engineering school of Brooklyn." She later obtained bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering at USC. Her career at NASA spanned multiple well-known projects, according to Siegel:

Her engineering career included roles on the teams that created the guidance computer for the Minuteman missile, the Abort-Guidance System in the Lunar Excursion Module for the Apollo space program, the ground system for the Tracking Data, and Relay System Satellite (recently retired after nearly 40 years of operations on orbit!) among others.

It was, Siegel said, her work on the Apollo project she was most proud of:

My mother usually considered her work on the Apollo program to be the highlight of her career. When disaster struck the Apollo 13 mission, it was the Abort-Guidance System that brought the astronauts home safely. Judy was there when the Apollo 13 astronauts paid a “thank you” to the TRW [now Northrop Grumman] facility in Redondo Beach, [California].

The story of Jack Black's birth occurring while Cohen solved an engineering problem from a hospital bed comes from this obituary as well. "She actually went to her office on the day that Jack was born," Siegel wrote. "When it was time to go to the hospital, she took with her a computer printout of the problem she was working on. Later that day, she called her boss and told him that she had solved the problem. And . . . oh, yes, the baby was born, too."

Jack Black, the aforementioned baby, would grow up to become a prolific actor and musician. In September 2019, Black paid tribute to his mother on Instagram with a 1959 photo of her next to Pioneer Spacecraft:

Judith Love Cohen, NASA engineer and mother of Jack Black

Because Cohen was the mother of Jack Black and because she worked on the Apollo abort system as an engineer for NASA, the claim is True.


“Meet Aerospace Engineer Judith Love Cohen.” Kottke.Org, https://kottke.org/19/05/meet-aerospace-engineer-judith-love-cohen. Accessed 20 Dec. 2023.

USC - Viterbi School of Engineering - In Memory of Judith Love Cohen: Mother, Wife, Friend, Author, Engineer. https://viterbi.usc.edu/news/news/2016/obituary-judith-love-cohen-neil-siegel-usc-viterbi-engineering-women.htm. Accessed 20 Dec. 2023.

Alex Kasprak is an investigative journalist and science writer reporting on scientific misinformation, online fraud, and financial crime.

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