History books teach students about Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, the first two people to walk on the moon. But what about the other inspiring 400,000 people who made that feat possible?
Margaret Hamilton, a computer scientist born in Indiana, wrote the code for Apollo 11’s successful landing. In addition to that monumental achievement, she’s run successful businesses and is even said to have coined the term “software engineering.” After earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in mathematics and a minor degree in philosophy from Earlham College, she moved to Boston, Massachusetts. It was there that she received an opportunity to work on the Apollo mission with NASA.
Margaret was interested in software reliability, though when she first started school, she thought she would focus on abstract math and mathematical linguistics. Big influences on Margaret’s early career were a math professor at Earlham College, Florence Long, and members of her family; her father was a philosopher and a poet, and her grandfather was a writer, head schoolmaster and a Quaker minister. In 1959, Margaret had started working with Professor Edward N. Lorenz to develop different software projects, systems and languages at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
In 1961, NASA issued its first contract to MIT for the Apollo program that would eventually send humans to the moon (and eventually inspire movies like Apollo 13). Around this time, Margaret was planning to study in the graduate program at Brandeis University when she learned about the NASA contracts. She contacted the MIT project managers to set up interviews for what she considered to be the “opportunity of a lifetime.” Both project managers offered her a position on their respective teams, so she suggested they flip a coin to see which group she would work with.
Margaret was working under intense pressure alongside fellow programmers. Because they had been tasked with sending humans safely to the moon and back, she would frequently work late nights, often with her 5-year-old daughter napping nearby, fixing code segments she suddenly realized were flawed. By 1968, more than 400 people were developing this software and essentially creating the space program as we know it today. It was Margaret’s dedicated attention to detail that would provide life-saving code aboard the Apollo 11 craft.
After working with NASA for more than a decade, Margaret decided to co-found a company called Higher Order Software in 1976. It built upon her work related to preventing errors in software codes. Ten years later, she became the founder and CEO of Hamilton Technologies, Inc. based just a few blocks away from where she got her start at MIT. It focuses on providing “products and services to modernize the planning, system engineering and software development process.”
Thanks to Margaret’s hard work and rigorous testing methods, she has been honored multiple times. In 1996, she was awarded the Augusta Ada Lovelace Award by the Association for Women in Computer and in 2003, NASA gave her the Exceptional Space Act Award. Most recently, she received a Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama in 2016. Margaret was also featured in a 2017 LEGO set titled “Women of NASA.” Margaret recommends to “not let fear get in the way” when embarking on new efforts, which certainly worked for her groundbreaking career.