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Margaret Hamilton

The Woman who sent Man to the Moon (1936)

‘That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind’, as astronaut Neil Armstrong legendarily pronounced when he descended the ladder of the Apollo 11 moon lander. On July the twentieth of 1969, Neil became the first human being in history to set foot on the surface of the Moon, an achievement that would have great cultural, philosophical and even political significance.
In the spirit of the age, it was not quite surprising that these first steps were taken by a man. After all, 1960s United States still saw women being encouraged to take on more domestically appropriate jobs - if not to stay at home. So much more the surprise that it was actually a woman - by the name of Margaret Hamilton - that was the lead developer for Apollo’s flight software. Nay, not just a woman, one might emphasize. What made Margaret even more of an anomaly was the fact that she was also a working mother. Not her gender nor her motherhood, though, prevented her from becoming ‘The Woman that sent Man to the Moon’.

Ironically, Margaret’s matriarchal climb to the top had quite a patriarchal start: in 1960, she took a temporary position at MIT’s meteorology department only to support the family while her husband was earning his undergraduate degree. Caught up in MIT’s laboratory, though, it would soon become clear that her position as a software engineer was to become a permanent one. Whereas she initiated her career by developing software for weather prediction, she soon started to work on the SAGE Project. Here, she would write software for the detection of enemy aircraft during the Cold War.

The tensions between the United States of America and the Soviet Union equally manifested themselves in quite a different setting: a race to the Moon. Indeed, the winner of this ‘space race’ would be technologically superior over the other, and, therefore, both nations endeavoured to win it. Given that Margaret’s work on the SAGE project had left her highly recommended for the position, she became the lead programmer on Apollo’s on-board software. She proved to be indispensable throughout: due to unexpected error messages popping up only three minutes before the landing, it was almost decided that the mission should be aborted. Having done her job well, Margaret quickly identified those messages as erroneous, allowing the ‘giant leap for mankind’ to proceed.

Margaret’s love for software engendered more than 130 publications, two companies and it eventually earned her a Presidential Medal of Freedom. Overall, the importance of software made Margaret realize that it deserved just as much respect as any other engineering discipline. Along with some peers, she therefore coined the term ‘software engineering’, a term widely adopted today but fought for in the 1960s.

Margaret Hamilton


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