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Aaron Cohen

Aaron Cohen

Johnson Space Center Director, 1986 - 1993

Aaron Cohen was appointed Johnson Space Center’s fifth center director on October 12, 1986.

More than 20 years earlier, in 1962, he joined the Manned Spacecraft Center and worked tirelessly to achieve President John F. Kennedy’s goal of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely. Over the course of the decade, he assumed a series of management positions of increasing responsibility in the Apollo Spacecraft Program Office and eventually became the manager for the Command and Service Modules, which safely transported astronauts to and from the Moon. During the Apollo 13 flight, his first as manager, he—along with many others at Johnson—helped to bring the crew safely home.

In recognition of his leadership and contributions, which led to the success of the Apollo Program, NASA named Cohen manager for the Space Shuttle Orbiter Project in 1972. President Richard M. Nixon had approved the program that year, and the manager of the first reusable spacecraft remembered starting the project with a viewgraph. Cohen, who considered himself “the father of the Space Shuttle Orbiter,” was heavily involved in every aspect of NASA’s new vehicle, including its subsystems, until 1982, when NASA completed the first four orbital test flights proving the concept. Former flight director and Center Director Christopher C. Kraft remembered Cohen as “the one person at the Johnson Space Center responsible for the design, development, tests, and the funds — the budget of the shuttle — from the time it started to the time it flew. Everybody looked up to Aaron and everybody had the highest regard and respect for him throughout the government and the aerospace industry, and that’s what made the shuttle project go as well as it did.”

Space shuttle officials Robert F. Thompson (right) and Aaron Cohen (left) and astronaut John Young (center) holding a model of a space shuttle
Space shuttle officials Robert F. Thompson (right) and Aaron Cohen (left) and astronaut John Young (center) holding a model of a space shuttle on top of the shuttle carrier aircraft. (1 April 1974)

Read Aaron Cohen’s oral history transcripts

In 1982, Cohen became the director of Engineering and Development, later renamed Research and Engineering. After the Challenger accident, which resulted in the loss of the orbiter and its crew, he became director of Johnson. Cohen recognized the importance of returning to flight safely and received the Goddard Space Trophy along with the rest of the Return to Flight Team, after the successful STS-26 mission. Astronaut and former NASA Administrator Charles Bolden recalled that “Aaron provided the critical and calm guidance needed at the Johnson Space Center to successfully recover from the Challenger accident and return the space shuttle to flight.”

As the Space Shuttle Program matured and the Space Station Program was evolving, Cohen came to believe it was time for Johnson to define their “vision, to define a consistent and clear plan of action—a plan that will be read and acted on.” He wanted policymakers to know more about the role the center would play in future spaceflight endeavors as well as its responsibilities and capabilities. At his urging, the senior leadership explained how Johnson would support NASA and its future programs. That plan, “Pioneering Space Exploration: The JSC Strategy,” was released in 1992.

Johnson Space Center Director Aaron Cohen walking with Houston Mayor Kathy Whitmire and Queen Elizabeth II of England during her visit to Johnson.
Johnson Space Center Director Aaron Cohen (center) walking with Houston Mayor Kathy Whitmire (left) and Queen Elizabeth II of England as they enter Building 9 during her visit to Johnson and and tour of the facilities on May 22, 1991.

In 1989, as NASA celebrated the 20th anniversary of the lunar landing, President George H.W. Bush outlined a plan to return to the Moon and go on to Mars and asked the National Space Council to make recommendations. In response, NASA Administrator Richard H. Truly called on Cohen to head a task force to conduct a 90-day study. Their final report served as a reference to assist the National Space Council as it explored how best to achieve the president’s goal and determine what was needed to meet his vision.

Several new facilities came online during Cohen’s years as director including the childcare facility, which is named after him, and the Central Computer Facility. He also laid the groundwork for a visitor’s center, now known as Space Center Houston, and he began efforts to secure funding for a Neutral Buoyancy Lab where astronauts would practice spacewalks.

In February 1992, Truly appointed Cohen acting deputy director for the agency. Cohen later returned to Johnson and retired in 1993 when he accepted an appointment as the Zachry Professor of Engineering at Texas A&M University. NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin announced that Cohen would continue to assist the agency as a special consultant to the administrator on human spaceflight as well as research and technology. “Even though Aaron will be involved with his duties at Texas A&M, he has agreed to continue to assist NASA in answering the challenges that lie ahead. His continuing involvement will allow us to take advantage of his tremendous experience, knowledge, and expertise.”

Visit the NASA Oral History Collections to read oral histories with NASA’s Johnson Space Center Directors and others across NASA.

Johnson Space Center Directors

Robert R. Gilruth

November 1961 - January 1972

Christopher C. Kraft, Jr.

January 1972 - August 1982

Gerald D. Griffin

August 1982 - January 1986

Jesse W. Moore

January 1986 - October 1986

Aaron Cohen

October 1986 - August 1993

Carolyn L. Huntoon

January 1994 - August 1995

George W.S. Abbey

January 1996 - February 2001

Roy S. Estess (Acting Director)

February 2001 - March 2002

Jefferson D. Howell, Jr.

March 2002 - November 2005

Michael L. Coats

November 2005 - December 2012

Ellen Ochoa

January 2013 - May 2018

Mark S. Geyer

May 2018 - May 2021

Vanessa Wyche

June 2021 - Present