In 1969, the world watched the Apollo 11 mission with bated breath. Margaret Hamilton and her team had a slightly different take. They watched the landing from the MIT observation room. Just before the module landed on the moon, the computer started flashing warning messages. Everyone’s heart stopped because an emergency was registered. However, it soon became clear that the problem had rectified itself and that Hamilton’s work had saved the mission. We were actively compensating for the problem by focusing on the only thing that mattered: booting up and landing the module safely. A few minutes later, Neil Armstrong reported that “Eagle has landed.”
Born in Paoli, Indiana in 1936, Margaret Hamilton never imagined she would become a computer scientist. Modern computers weren’t made until seven years after her birth. Hamilton studied mathematics and philosophy at Earlham College in the 1950s, where she met her husband. She Hamilton originally intended to teach mathematics in high school, but her plans changed when she moved to Boston with her husband so she could study law at Harvard. To support her family, Hamilton took a job at her MIT project while her husband worked on her degree. The project, run by Professor Edward Lorenz, involved creating a system to predict the weather. Lorenz specifically advertised as a mathematics major, and Hamilton fit the bill. Under his guidance, she learned what computers are and tried her hand at writing software. She learned on her job and she continued to experiment with software inspired by Lorenz.
Fascinated by software programming and eager to experiment in such new areas, Hamilton worked at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory in the early 1960s. Here she continued to learn and practice programming while working on the Semi-Automated Ground Environment (SAGE) project, a system used to identify enemy aircraft. Hamilton’s experience in programming software made her a perfect candidate for the Apollo 11 mission job, and she was the first to apply after seeing it advertised in the newspaper.
Hamilton has been selected to lead the software engineering department of MIT’s Metrology Lab in partnership with NASA. The number of teams he eventually exceeded 400. Her team was responsible for all the code and programming required to send astronauts to the moon. Programming has become much more complicated than anyone first thought. Since this kind of work was so new, upper management gave the software team complete freedom. The only condition was that the mission had to succeed.
Hamilton and her team were dedicated to the project, working nights and weekends as needed. In addition to leading the team, Hamilton was also responsible for writing the code. In particular, she worked on in-flight command and Lunar Module guidance and control system code. Additionally, she focused on programming systems for detecting errors and recovering information in the event of a computer crash. It was this program that saved the mission at the last moment before landing.
While writing this code, Hamilton found the need to account for human error. One evening she took her daughter Lauren to her lab. While Lauren is pretending to be an astronaut, she accidentally presses a button to run a simulation, causing her navigation data to be erased. Hamilton took his concerns to upper management, but was told that astronauts were trained not to make mistakes. It was only after an astronaut made the same mistake during training that Hamilton was given permission to fix the “Lauren bug.”
After leaving MIT, Hamilton continued to work in software engineering throughout the 1970s and 80s. She started her own software company and developed her Universal Systems Language (USL). Hamilton used her lessons learned from Apollo 11 to design a coding system to make programming easier and more efficient. She wanted a system that was reliable and could correct errors before they occurred. USL is still used today primarily as a basis for other coding languages.
When Hamilton entered the world of software programming, it was a clean slate. Like her previous inventor, she and her colleagues had to build the program from scratch, figuring out all the problems and fixing them from scratch. Their creative work in new fields included her one mission: to get America to the moon. Hamilton undertook that mission with dedication, bringing innovation to the work accomplished by those who came before her. opened and helped continue the innovation and community pathways that define American progress in science and technology. Today, there are about 4 million software engineers in the United States alone, all continuing the work first pioneered by Margaret Her Hamilton.
This article originally appeared in American Essence magazine.