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The Computer Scientist Who Saved the Moon Landing – Margaret Hamilton

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One of the most iconic photos portraying women in tech shows Margaret Hamilton, a pioneering computer scientist and computer engineer, standing next to the code she and her team created to direct the Apollo spacecraft to its destination. 

Hamilton was the Apollo 11 software designer. Her innovative thinking prevented the Apollo 11 mission from being aborted. 

Hamilton’s career included the development of priority scheduling, asynchronous software and Human-in the-loop decision capabilities. These concepts were the foundation of modern software design. 

Hamilton also advocated for programming to be treated with respect, and coined the term “software engineering”. Her work proved that software can make the difference between success and failure.

Behind the greatest female in programming technology: Margaret Hamilton

Margaret Heafield Hamilton, an American computer scientist and systems engineer, is a business owner. She was the Director of the Software Engineering Division at the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory. This division developed the on-board software needed to fly the Apollo spacecraft. She was the founder and CEO at Hamilton Technologies, Inc. in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1986. Her paradigm of Development Before the Fact (DBTF), which is a method for software and systems design, was the basis of the Universal Systems Language.

Hamilton has published more than 130 papers, proceedings and reports on the 60 projects and six major programmes in which she was involved. She was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom on November 22, 2016 by President Barack Obama. This award recognizes her leadership in the development of flight software for NASA’s Apollo Moon missions.

Margaret’s Youth and Early Career

Margaret Heafield was the daughter of Kenneth Heafield, and Ruth Esther Heafield (nee Partington). After graduating Hancock High School in 1954 with a B.A. in Mathematics, she continued her education at the University of Michigan in 2005. Earlham College gave her a B.A. in mathematics and a minor in philosophy in 1958. 

After graduation, she taught French and high school mathematics to her husband, who was completing his Harvard undergraduate degree. She hopes to pursue a graduate degree in the future. With the intent of pursuing graduate studies in abstract mathematics at Brandeis University, she moved to Boston, Massachusetts. 

A female math professor was a key factor in her decision to pursue abstract mathematics. Her father, the philosopher, poet and grandfather were also inspirations for her. These men, she says, inspired her to minor in philosophy. In 1960, she was offered an interim job at MIT to help develop software that could predict weather using the LGP-30 computers and the PDP-1 computers (at Marvin Minsky’s Project MAC). 

This software was developed for Edward Norton Lorenz, a meteorology professor. Hamilton stated that computer science and software engineering weren’t yet disciplines at the time. Instead programmers were taught on the job through hands-on experience. 

What made one of the most famous women in tech: Apollo 11

Hamilton was a self-taught programmer. She first got involved in the space program when she was appointed for Director of the Software Engineering Division at the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory in 1965. This lab was responsible for developing the onboard flight software NASA needed to navigate to the Moon. Wired Magazine explained that the lunar landing was “the first time that such a mission-critical and real-time task was given to software.” Margaret Hamilton was responsible for the application development.

She was rewarded for her hard work when Apollo 11 attempted to land on the Moon on July 20, 1969. The computer was overwhelmed by data from an unneeded radar system that had been mistakenly activated by the crew, and alarms went off three minutes before the landing attempt. 

Hamilton not only had programmed the computer for such an error but also made sure that priority scheduling software could finish high-priority tasks, like landing preparations, by disregarding lower priority tasks. Hamilton wrote about Apollo 11 in 1971 that

If the computer had not recognized this problem, and taken recovery actions, I doubt it would have been the successful lunar landing it was.

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Hamilton was a key contributor to many subsequent Apollo missions after the success of Apollo 11. Hamilton founded Hamilton Technologies in 1986 with the goal of improving on Universal System Language, which was developed for NASA, to make software easier, more reliable, and cheaper to develop. Hamilton played an important role in the development of software engineering into a respected discipline. Hamilton, now 82, explained in a recent interview why she started calling herself “software engineer”. She said that software was not treated as a science and art during its early stages. I worked to give the software legitimacy, so it (and its builders) would be treated with respect.

How Margaret Influenced the World of Females in Tech

Hamilton’s name has been largely unknown for many years. But, in recent years, the public has come to recognize how significant Hamilton’s contributions have made to our world. In 2016, President Barack Obama awarded Hamilton the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her contribution to Apollo 11’s successful landing. He said that while they didn’t have much time, it was a blessing that they had Margaret Hamilton. 

Hamilton was also featured in the LEGO Women of NASA set, which was created by fans and released in 2017. Hamilton remembers fondly a time when software was still unexplored. Looking back, we were some of the luckiest people on the planet.

Hamilton worked on NASA’s Apollo missions and SkyLab, America’s first space station. These meticulously designed methods are the basis of many modern software engineering techniques.

Margaret Hamilton, a pioneer in software engineering and a NASA alumna, helped to create an industry that has changed the world for the better.

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