Inspirational women: Margaret Hamilton

July 20 in 1969 marked an important day in the history of humankind:  Apollo 11, the first manned mission to the moon, witnessed by 600 million people on television, was accomplished successfully, partially thanks to software developed by Margaret Hamilton and her team.

Margaret Hamilton, born August 17 1936 in Paoli, Indiana, USA, characterized as inquisitive by nature, discovered her passion for math in early childhood, leading her to pursue a degree in mathematics and philosophy at Earlham College.

After having earned her undergraduate degree in 1958, she put her plans for graduate studies on hold, to support her husband with pursuing a law degree at Harvard University. She refused to take part in the Harvard social tradition of serving tea, which was expected from wives of law students at the time, and instead taught herself how to code.

Shortly after, she started working at MIT’s meteorology department and developed a software for predicting weather, followed by a job at MIT Lincoln lab, where she developed a software prototype that detected enemy aircraft.

With her experiences in coding, she was able to secure a job as the first ever programmer hired at Charles Stark Draper Laboratory at MIT working on the Apollo Space Mission, at age 28.

As the leader of the Software Engineering Division, she coined the term “software engineering”, gaining the discipline the same respect as any other technical discipline.

“There was no choice but to be pioneers.” (Margaret Hamilton)

The software developed by her and the team she was in charge of, was programmed in such a way that it was able to recognize error conditions and subsequently perform recovery programs. An emergency that occurred just before the moon landing in Apollo 11 probably would have led to a failure of the mission if not recognized by the software. With human lives at stake, the inflight systems developed by Hamilton have proven to operate flawlessly in all crewed Apollo missions.

For her achievements, Hamilton received the largest financial award ever given to an individual by NASA in 2003, and was awarded the highest civilian honor in the U.S., the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016.

Sources:

Margaret Hamilton | Computer Scientist – NASA Solar System Exploration

Margaret Hamilton | Science Mission Directorate (nasa.gov)

Margaret Hamilton, NASA’s First Software Engineer – YouTube

NASA’s first software engineer: Margaret Hamilton – Matt Porter & Margaret Hamilton – YouTube

Margaret Hamilton (software engineer) – Wikipedia