On July 24, 1969, the world watched as Nasa sent three men to the Moon. For anyone watching that day, or who has since seen the footage, the images of that day are easily recalled: Neil Armstrong taking that “one small step,” planting the American flag on the Moon’s surface, or the control room full of bespectacled men back home. It wasn’t any of those men, nor the astronauts that made that moon landing possible – but Nasa software engineer, Margaret Hamilton.
An MIT programmer, Ms. Hamilton was assigned to the team responsible for coding the Lunar shuttle’s landing operations. The men of the team created the hardware, but Margaret was given the more “feminine” job of attending to the software since it was similar to the female dominated occupation of typing.
Dedicating long, exhausting hours to the project, Margaret discovered an error in the checklist manual for the landing process which called for the throwing of a switch that if enabled, would overload the shuttle’s computer, thus making landing impossible. With this discovery, Margaret programmed the shuttle’s computer to anticipate such an occurrence, making it ignore all non-essential messages in favor of critical landing operations.
This situation did, in fact, occur as the Appollo 11’s Lunar Lander astronauts prepared to set the shuttle down on the moon’s surface that July day. Were it not for Margaret’s program, that landing would never have occurred.
Ms. Hamilton went on to work on various other Nasa projects before forming two separate companies of her own throughout a long, successful career. She is responsible for, in part, for coining the term “software engineering” and for making the field, a respected, even desired, field. Margaret also developed the software for what became the portable computer. We are fortunate to have Ms. Hamilton still grace this beautiful planet.
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