She put the First Men on the Moon: Margaret Hamilton, the First Software Engineer

Ciao lovelies! As you may know, Saturday, July 20th 2019, was the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing. I’m sure many of you already know the names of the famous astronauts who went on that mission, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, but did you know the name of the woman who made it possible for them to land at all? Her name is Margaret Hamilton, and she was, effectively, the first software engineer.

Margaret Hamilton at MIT during the Apollo 11 Mission.

On the fateful day of July 20th, 1969, the lunar module, Eagle was approaching the moon’s surface, when suddenly, the computers onboard began to flash warning messages. With only 30 seconds of fuel left, the command center at NASA was left with a critical decision. Was it safe to land? Could the computer continue to guide the lunar module to the surface of the moon?

The people at Mission Control decided to trust in Margaret Hamilton’s software, and gave the command to land the module. The computer was able to overcome the error and still guided the lunar module to the surface of the moon safely. A few seconds later, Neil Armstrong relayed back to Mission Control, “The Eagle has landed.”

What had caused the error message? After an investigation it was shown that there had been a hardware problem and the software was compensating for it. Margaret Hamilton’s handiwork had saved the mission.

Margaret Hamilton with her code for Apollo 11.

In recognition of her accomplishments on the Apollo 11 mission, in 2016 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States.

“She symbolizes that generation of unsung women who helped send humankind into space,” said then President Barack Obama when he awarded Margaret Hamilton the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Margaret Hamilton in 2016, being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Margaret Hamilton was a pioneer in an era where programming and computer science were not taken seriously by hardware engineers. When discussing her experiences in this field, she mentioned how “software was nottaken as seriously as other engineering disciplines. Though in fact we had acomplex system of systems, we weren’t getting credit for what was a legitimate field.” Her coining of the term “Software Engineer,” combined with her excellent skill in her field, helped to legitimize the software engineers of the world and contributed to it being such a highly regarded field today.

Margaret Hamilton was also a pioneer for women who want to get into STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). When asked what advice she has for women interested in programming, she said “Don’t let fear get in the way and don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand” – no question is a dumb question.”

She was also responsible for founding a company called Hamilton Technologies, and developed the Universal Systems Language (USL).

Margaret Hamilton is certainly a woman that all of us can look up to. Not only does she represent the era of unrecognized and underappreciated women in STEM, but she stands as a beacon of hope to any woman interested in STEM fields.

What do you think of Margaret Hamilton? Did you know of her before this article? If not, tell us what you think in the comments below, now that you’ve learned about her!

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