Feature

Aaron Cohen

The engineer who ran Mission Control

Aaron Cohen
1931–2010

Aaron Cohen spent three decades deeply involved in every aspect of the American space program, working on all six U.S. lunar landings, managing the space shuttle orbiter program, and helping to launch the space station. He was credited with helping NASA recover after the Challenger explosion, in 1986.

Born in Texas to Russian immigrant parents, Cohen grew up in San Antonio. After studying mechanical engineering at Texas A&M University, he earned a master’s degree in applied mathematics at Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey. His first engineering job was with RCA, said the Houston Chronicle, where he worked on a magnetron tube ultimately used in the microwave oven and on the cathode ray tube for color television. “But the launch of the Russian satellite Sputnik in 1957 changed the course of his life,” and he decided he had to work for the fledgling American space program.

After joining NASA, he “managed the computer guidance systems for the Apollo command module and the landing module that first carried astronauts to the moon’s surface,” said The Washington Post. In 1986, after the Challenger exploded, claiming the lives of seven astronauts, he was named director of the Johnson Space Center. Colleagues said he helped rebuild confidence within a shaken NASA, as he pushed the goal of getting Americans back into space. He was in charge three years later when shuttle flights resumed. He left NASA in 1993 to teach at his alma mater, Texas A&M.

Sending people into space was a humbling and nerve-racking experience, Cohen once told a group of students. Before a mission, he said, “you wondered, what did you forget? But once you got to the control center, we didn’t talk about failure because there was work to do to get the job done.”

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