With her work on the software development for the Apollo 11 mission, Margaret Hamilton is the woman behind man’s first steps on the Moon. If her name doesn’t ring a bell, you’ve probably seen a picture of her standing next to a stack of printed code from the Apollo missions in assembly language (see at the end).
Margaret made her mark on history by laying the foundations of modern “software engineering” with the design of the embedded systems for the Apollo program.
What is less well known is that she was the mother of a little Lauren. She led a successful career in addition to raising her daughter. At the time, it was unusual.
- 1936: Birth in Indiana
- 1958: at 22, she obtains her mathematics license
- 1960: she joins MIT to develop weather prediction software and discovers a new passion
- 1961-1963: she works on the military project SAGE at MIT, one of the first computer systems of missile defense
- 1963: she is recruited by the DRAPER laboratory at MIT. She works there for the missions of the NASA’s Apollo program on the embedded software which must support the navigation and the landing on the Moon
- One of his great inventions was to give the computer the possibility to prioritize tasks. During the Apollo mission to the moon, the computer was deluged with information. Landing, being the task with the highest priority, was made possible thanks to Margaret’s operating system architecture
Pioneer & mother
In the 1960s, Margaret was an exception in the IT world:
- Woman among men
- She held a position of technical responsibility within the scientific community
- She had a daughter
She had to face criticism from people who did not understand that a mother could pursue a career in parallel. She has been morally criticized many times. She was constantly reminded of her role as a mother.
Mother-daughter, fantastic pair
Motherhood has not been a barrier to Margaret’s work, quite the contrary. She was so passionate about her job that during her long hours of programming, she didn’t hesitate to take her daughter to her office.
Lauren sometimes had fun with the simulations created by her mother, while the latter configured the routine software that would be used for the mission to the moon. This passage, told by Margaret, tells an anecdote about a discovery made through the experiments of her daughter.
“My daughter Lauren would often come to work with me at nights and weekends because we were all so dedicated. There wasn’t a time when we weren’t working. She liked to play astronaut because she saw me playing that way in certain simulations we would run. This was in a hardware simulation because we wanted to try how the software worked with all the other things—the astronaut, the hardware. So I remember one time when Lauren’s simulation crashed and I thought, ‘Oh my god, how did that happen?’
We checked it out and she had done something the astronaut was never supposed to do. Because, once you lift off prelaunch, you’re now on the way. She selected P01 which was the prelaunch program during mid-course flight. So I went back and looked at the listing and sure enough that would be possible. So I brought it to the people, whoever was involved, saying this is amazing, look what happened. I don’t know which people at NASA or MIT said, ‘Well it’s never going to happen because the astronauts are so well trained. It’s just not going to happen.’ I said but what if it does happen. My whole emphasis was always what if, right?
I wanted somebody to make the error detection recovery code saying, ‘Hey, this is not the right time to select P01.’ That’s what the code would do. They kept saying, you know, it’s not going to happen. So I wrote a program note because that becomes part of the spec so the astronaut knows it’s there. They can find it and the program notes said simply do not select one during flight. That’s what the note said.
Well, the very next flight, Apollo 8, that’s exactly what happened. After that they said, “Yes, Margaret, you can put that change in there.” So it did get in there for the very next mission.
Thanks to Margaret and her team, the navigation data was fed back to the Apollo 8 module in time and its course was corrected.
Her achievements and innovations, at a time when women were only a minority, helped open up the discipline of computer science to women.
Today, Margaret Hamilton is an inspiring figure for all women in the technical field, but also for all mothers who pursue a career. She embodies all possibilities.
copyright: ©Draper Laboratory; restored by Adam Cuerden.
- We Hack the moon
- France Culture
- Le reset
- Les femmes de l’Enseignement Supérieur et de la Recherche
(*) If you’re wondering about the “rope mother” meaning: Margaret became known as the “Rope Mother,” which was an apt description for her role and referred to the unusual way that computer programs were stored on the Apollo Guidance Computers. Art and culture