July 20, 1960. The American nation and people across the Earth watched in awe as Neil Armstrong made history by setting foot on the Moon. Today, almost everyone can recite Neil’s monumental first words on the satellite: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” However, few people know that the landing of men on the Moon would likely not have been possible without the brilliant work of one woman – Margaret Hamilton.1
Margaret Hamilton was born on August 17, 1936 in Paoli, Indiana.2 As a child, she very much enjoyed school, but there was something about mathematics she loved more than anything else. Her talent in solving complex problems was noticed by her 11th grade math teacher, Mr. Phillips, who would later recall Margaret’s frustration with the lack of computer programming courses in school curriculums. “Math and Computer Programming are the foundation for progress”, young Margaret had said to him, as though she was able to see into the future. And little did anyone know, time would prove her right.3
Following her passion for math, Margaret Hamilton obtained a BA in Mathematics from Earlham College in 1958. While in college, she met her future husband James Cox Hamilton. Margaret had initially planned to continue her education pursuing a graduate degree in math, however she decided to first follow her husband to Boston where he attended Harvard Law School. Despite delaying her own education plans to support her husband, Hamilton was far more progressive than most married women at the time. For example, she refused to take part in a Harvard social tradition, which required wives of law students to pour tea for the men. “No way am I pouring tea!”, Margaret told her husband, asserting her rights in an era where women did as they were told. 3
In Boston, Margaret Hamilton took a job as a computer programmer for Professor Edward Lorenz in the Meteorology Department at the Massachusetts Institute of technology (“MIT”). Not having a formal education in programming, Margaret learned on the job, using the instructions for a computer called “LGP-30”. Shortly after, the “Apollo” program came along setting the bold mission to land men on the moon. Margaret enthusiastically pursued the opportunity and became the Lunar and Command Modules on-board flight software team leader.4 She was additionally assigned with creating the software for operation in case of mission abortion, because “she was a beginner” and because it was believed that the mission “would never abort.”3
Knowing that human lives were at stake, Margaret Hamilton worked tirelessly to create a software that would lead the mission to success. At the same time, she was also raising her daughter Lauren, who often ended up in the “Apollo” simulation room, playing astronaut while her mother was working. One time, as Lauren was playing with the simulator, the system crashed completely. Margaret quickly realized that Lauren had selected the wrong program, which in turn had the system confused. Concerned about the risk of this happening during flight, she sought permission to recreate an emergency situation in order to test the astronauts’ response. Her concerns, however, did not seem compelling to the project leaders who believed the astronauts were trained not to make such mistakes. Naturally, they were wrong.
Approximately three minutes before astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were set to land on the moon, an emergency occurred. Hamilton’s software, which no one thought would ever be used, came into play. Since she created the emergency program herself, she became the expert who saved the day. Relying on her confidence in the program – a product of the rigorous testing process she used in her work – NASA authorized the landing and the mission became a success.
In 2016, Margaret Hamilton was honored with the highest civilian award in the United States, the Medal of Freedom, by President Barack Obama.1 Today, Margaret is the CEO of “Hamilton Technologies” Inc., a software engineering company based in Cambridge Massachusetts, which she founded in 1986.5 Through her work, Hamilton continues to inspire women and men alike to believe in their dreams and to pursue them fearlessly, despite all odds.
Margaret Hamilton standing next to the “Apollo” code she wrote