The Ultimate Girl Who Codes / Margaret Hamilton



12.7.16 | KATE PALISAY


Sometimes I catch myself thinking about the absolute insanity that is the existence of things like 300-ton flying tubes of metal (airplanes), tiny rectangles that talk to other tiny rectangles and magically share text and images (cell phones), and even archaic things like discs that remember sounds and will play them back if you spin them really fast (records).

Technology blows my mind because as far as I can tell, it creates something tangible out of nothing, which is why I can’t even begin to wrap my head around the fact that in 1969, Margaret Hamilton’s hand-written code put the first man on the moon.

  Margaret Stands With The Code For Apollo 11 ;  Image Courtesy of MIT

Margaret Stands With The Code For Apollo 11 ; Image Courtesy of MIT

Hamilton was just 33 years old when the software she had spent four years creating at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Instrumentation Lab successfully landed Apollo 11 on the moon’s surface. She began working at MIT as a programmer when she was 24, a young wife and mother with a degree in mathematics supporting her family while her husband earned his law degree. Instead of leaving within a few years to pursue her own graduate studies as she had planned, Hamilton became the lead engineer designing Apollo’s in-flight software.

The 1960s aren’t exactly remembered for their radical workplace gender equality, but if a glass ceiling ever got in Hamilton’s way, there’s not a single broken shard of glass left behind to show for it. She often balanced work with motherhood by bringing her young daughter, Lauren, to the Lab with her. The presence of Hamilton’s daughter in the Lab proved to be unexpectedly valuable one day when Lauren, playing around on one of Apollo’s command simulators, launched a program that caused the system to crash, exposing a major point of vulnerability in the programming. NASA, convinced that no trained astronaut could ever mistakenly launch the program that would wipe the system during a mission, denied Hamilton’s request to build a back up response into the software. Then, during the 1968 Apollo 8 mission that carried astronauts in the first-ever manned orbit around the moon, astronaut Jim Lovell accidentally launched the fatal program, erasing the system’s navigation data that would direct the spacecraft in its return to Earth. Disaster was avoided because Hamilton, aware of the system’s flaw, was able to code new navigational data that could be sent to Apollo 8’s command by the Space Center in Houston.

  Margaret In A Mock-Up Of Apollo Command ;  Image Courtesy of The LA Times

Margaret In A Mock-Up Of Apollo Command ; Image Courtesy of The LA Times

  A Page From The Code For Apollo 11 ;  Image Courtesy of The National Air and Space Museum

A Page From The Code For Apollo 11 ; Image Courtesy of The National Air and Space Museum

The work that Hamilton did for the Space Program was essentially the birth of software engineering, and thus has been central to virtually development in modern technology since then. In 1986, she founded Hamilton Technologies, creating products designed to modernize system engineering and software development. In particular, her company has focused on the Universal Systems Language, which is based on a philosophy of prevention before the fact, that does not allow errors, like the one her daughter discovered in the Apollo software, to occur in the first place. On November 22, 2016, Hamilton was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama for her numerous contributions to the field of software engineering and her role in the lunar landing. The United States' highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom is presented to individuals who have made particularly meaningful contributions to the security or national interest of the U.S, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors. 

Kate PalisayComment