On July 20, 1969, Margaret Hamilton’s computer code allowed Neil Armstrong to become the first human on the moon. Sure, Armstrong will forever be remembered in history as the first man to walk on the moon, but it took a woman to land him there. As a result of her work on the Apollo mission, Hamilton became a pioneer of software engineering, a term she actually coined herself.
At 24 years old with an undergrad degree in mathematics, Hamilton taught high school classes and then took a job as a computer programmer at MIT to support her husband through Harvard Law. Then, on August 10, 1961, NASA issued its first major contract for the Apollo program with MIT to develop the guidance and navigation system for the Apollo spacecraft. Hamilton led the software engineering division to develop the building blocks of software engineering. At the time, Hamilton and her team were pioneers on a new frontier. Or, as she explained: “When I first got into it, nobody knew what it was that we were doing. It was like the Wild West.”
By mid-1968, Hamilton led a team of 400 people who worked on Apollo’s software. Hamilton was so dedicated to the project that she would come to the lab on weekends and evenings to continue programming.
Hamilton’s hard work paid off on July 20, 1969. Just minutes before Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were about to make their historic moon landing, alarms started ringing. The computer that was running the Apollo 11 lunar module was about to make a shift that could have aborted the entire mission. Instead of completing the history-making moon landing, the astronauts would have had no other choice but to return to Earth. Luckily, Hamilton and her team had programmed a different set of instructions that took control of the computer and the mission was able to continue.
Almost 50 years since the historic landing, Hamilton e was finally recognized for her crucial role in the Apollo 11 mission. On November 22, 2016, President Obama awarded her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, saying Hamilton was a part of “that generation of unsung women who helped send humankind into space.”