Career Profile: Margaret Hamilton

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Margaret Hamilton helped land the Eagle and won many accolades, but wasn’t in the movies.

Educate students about an inspiring software engineer and her incredible contribution to the Apollo 11 Moon landing. This is best suited to secondary school STEM students who are interested in lesser-known careers in the space sector.

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Margaret Hamilton in the Apollo Command Module. Credit: NASA

When doing an internet search on the pioneering software engineer Margaret Hamilton, we must add a description such as scientist, or NASA, or Lego (more on that later).

Search engines being what they are, they naturally assume you’re looking for Margaret Hamilton the actress, best known for playing the Wicked Witch of the West in the cinema classic The Wizard of Oz.

On the webpage devoted to our Margaret Hamilton, she is described as “a computer scientist who was instrumental to NASA’s efforts to land humans on the moon in the 1960s and 1970s”.

“For her work,” it adds, “she was honoured with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016.”

President Barack Obama awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Margaret H. Hamilton in 2016.  (Credit Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

In presenting the award, US president Barack Obama said, “her example speaks of the American spirit of discovery that exists in every little girl and little boy who know that somehow to look beyond the heavens is to look deep within ourselves”.

On its own website, NASA, a bit more reserved in its praise, calls Hamilton a computer scientist who in 1961 was contracted to develop the Apollo program’s guidance system.

“For her work during this period, Hamilton has been credited with popularising the concept of software engineering,” it says.

What neither article mentions, however, is that in 2017 Hamilton was “immortalised”, to quote the Guardian story on the event, “as a Lego figurine”.

The set, which is listed on the Lego website as a “retired product”, was intended to “explore the professions of some of the groundbreaking women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics”.

Along with Hamilton, it included figurines of NASA astronomer Nancy Grace Roman, and astronauts Sally Ride and Mae Jemison.

The path to moon landings and Lego figurines was a circuitous one for Margaret Heafield, who was born on 17 August 1936 in Paoli, a small town in the US state of Indiana.

The family relocated to Michigan and she studied mathematics at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor before moving back to Indiana, where, in 1958, she graduated from Earlham College with a mathematics major and a minor in philosophy. That same year she married James Hamilton, who was studying chemistry at Earlham.

As she told The Guardian, they were both poised to continue on to graduate school, she in abstract mathematics, he in chemistry, but after the birth of their daughter, James decided he wanted to go to law school at Harvard, in Massachusetts.

Margaret found a job “to support our family” at the nearby Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in the laboratory of Edward Lorenz, the scientist renowned for formulating what became known as the butterfly effect and chaos theory.

She was put to work on a system to predict weather. “He was asking for maths majors… Here I learned what a computer was and how to write software,” she told The Guardian. “Computer science and software engineering were not yet disciplines; instead, programmers learned on the job. Lorenz’s love for software experimentation was contagious, and I caught the bug.”

Hamilton stands with a stack of program listings from the Apollo Guidance Computer. Credit: NASA

She did indeed. An article published by the international Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) credits her “with having coined the term ‘software engineering’ while developing the guidance and navigation system for the Apollo spacecraft as head of the Software Engineering Division of the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory”.

“In the early days, no one really knew what they were doing,” she told the IEEE. “There was no field for software engineering. You were on your own. Knowledge, or lack thereof, was passed down from person to person.”

As for the space mission software, “not only did it have to work, it had to work the first time. Not only did the software itself have to be ultra-reliable, it needed to be able to perform error detection and recovery in real time. Our languages dared us to make the most subtle of errors. We were on our own to come up with rules for building software. What we learned from the errors was full of surprises.”

All of which figured into one of the most dramatic moments on the Apollo 11 landing.

An article in Smithsonian Magazine described the scene on 20 July 1969, as the lunar module Eagle was approaching the moon’s surface.

Its computers began flashing warning messages and “Mission Control faced a ‘go / no-go’ decision, but with high confidence in the software developed by Hamilton and her team, they told the astronauts to proceed”.

“Fortunately,” Hamilton said, “the people at Mission Control trusted our software.”

The article continued: “And with only enough fuel for 30 more seconds of flight, Neil Armstrong reported, ‘The Eagle has landed’.”

This article was originally published by Cosmos in 2020.

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