Margaret Hamilton, NASA's First Software Engineer
When it comes to Margaret Hamilton's career, she literally shoots for the moon. Hamilton discusses joining NASA as their first software engineer and creating the software that launched the Apollo 11 first manned mission to the moon.
NASA's First Software Engineer
Margaret Hamilton talks about her career becoming NASA's first software engineer and creating the software that launched the Apollo 11 first manned mission to the moon.
Meet Margaret H. Hamilton, the woman who led man to the moon. On July 20th, 1969, minutes before Apollo 11's scheduled touch-down, there was a computer error that would have changed history had it not been for Margaret's programming that overrode the glitch and ultimately made "one small step for man, and a giant leap for mankind" a reality.
A self-taught programmer who rose to the top of the Software Engineering division at MIT, Hamilton developed the building blocks for (and even coined the term) software engineering.
On November 22nd, 2016, President Barack Obama awarded Margaret Hamilton the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor, for her invaluable contributions to modern technology and science as we know it.
- They announced that they were looking for people to do programming to send man to the moon, and I just thought wow, I've gotta go there. I grew up in the Midwest, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, upper peninsula. I just enjoyed school, but there was something about math that I just liked more than everything else. I liked deriving the answers, 'cause I didn't wanna memorize, it was too much. I was lazy. When my husband was in law school they wanted the law wives, my being one of them, to pour tea. And I said to my husband, no way am I pouring tea. I was a Harvard Law wife. If I go to Harvard Law School fine, I'll do what the men do, but I'm not gonna be put in that position, and was very proud of me that I had taken that stand. They announced that they were looking for people to do programming to send man to the moon. I was the first programmer they hired. I came up with the term software engineer, and it was considered a joke. What, software is engineering? Mostly men were working there and they had somebody at home to take care of their kids. I had no choice. I'd bring my daughter Lauren into work nights and weekends, and she'd see me playing astronaut to test the software, and doing the kinds of things the astronaut would do. So, she wanted to do it too, so she played astronaut. And all of a sudden everything came crashing on the simulator, and I realized that what she had done is that she selected the prelaunch program during flight. I said oh my god, this not good. We really need to put a protection in there 'cause the astronaut really could do what she did by mistake. I tried to get it through MIT/NASA. No, they said astronauts are trained never to make a mistake. There was an emergency. Everything happened that we thought would happen if they made the mistake, so then there was a decision, go, no-go, land, or don't land. Fortunately, the people at mission control trusted our software, and they said go, go, go. The software and the hardware worked perfectly. The software was on the ground and on the moon.
- [Neil] That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.
- 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.
- Being fearless, even when the experts say no this doesn't make sense, they didn't believe it, nobody did. It was something that we were dreaming of happening, but it became real.
- They would make women ask their husband for permission to take out a loan which they did with me. Then, I wrote a letter to the president of Harvard Trust. I was upset. He called me and it changed, they no longer had that happen at the bank. So, if it wasn't fair, that's what mattered to me. If it had been unfair to men, I would've done the same thing. Whoever it's unfair to, it's gotta be fair from a human point of view. And women did get, I found out they were getting paid less and they weren't being promoted as much. And just because I might have been an exception didn't make it be right.
- My father was a poet and a philosopher, and he and I just were like good friends. We would drive from one part of the upper peninsula to another. We'd talk all the time what ifs, why is this this way, why not? We were just constantly engaged in talks, philosophical-like subjects. He would say things like, I never ever thought of that, and I would believe him, right? Later on, I'm sure he was, it was not necessarily the truth that he would never have thought of it or hadn't heard of it, but it certainly encouraged me to go on with those kinds of things. And when I did decide to major in math, he mentioned how the kind of math I was interested in had so much commonality with philosophy. My grandfather was also a teacher and he became a quaker minister. So, we'd have discussions on a different level, but these were favorite times, spending time with the two of them.
- I was doing work also for Professor Lorenz on the Project MAC computer, the PDP-1. And the hackers, I don't know if you've heard of the hackers, but they were there. And they were going to MIT, but they never went to school they just kept playing with the computer. And one night, I went in there and things didn't work the way they were supposed to. My program wasn't working, and so I said you know, there's a problem with the computer. It's not working and at that time, you never blamed the computer. If you're programming, it's always your program. But I felt like it was the computer. So anyway, I talked about the problem and it turned out the hackers had changed the hardware in the middle of the night. I didn't realize it but by talking about the computer not working, they got caught doing what they did I don't know if I caught the first hackers or not but this story is told that way
- Just before the landing took place on Apollo 11, I was in Mission Control in what we called the SCAMA room. And it was such a moment of relief. I was not concentrating on the mission, per se. I was concentrating on the software. All of a sudden, it was like everything sort of, everything you did on Apollo, up to that point in time, it just all happened in front of you. People say that, you know, before they're no longer here, they see their life. I could see the Apollo life just, my God, look what happened, we did it. It worked. It was exciting.
- One of my favorite moments is when we'd argue about whether or not to put certain changes in, and I'd wanna put a change in to save the astronaut just in case, and I'd have to fight to get it in and vice versa. There was the limb project manager who was a go between between Houston and our group. So, the limb project manager, he was a real character, his name was George Cherry, and he and I'd really get into it. And at one point, George said to me, and this is many people listening to us over the argument, and he said you are a megalomanic. And I said to him, coming from you, that's the biggest compliment you could give me 'cause we all consider him to be that. We had such great memories of those discussions.
- Florence Long was professor of math at Earlham College. She was the head of the math department, but in some classes, I was the only woman in class, but there was a woman teaching us. Everybody looked up to her. I mean, she was just a very warm and brilliant human being. It wasn't what she said, it's just who she was. She would invite us to her house from time to time for cucumber sandwiches with mayonnaise. But when she'd get up and lecture, I thought, "Oh my God, I wanna do what she's doing, "it really did have an influence."
- I think that I was probably the first programmer NASA hired. They gave me an assignment, it was on the unmanned mission, where it would go if it should abort, if something should go wrong with the mission, never expecting it to happen because everything was going to be perfect. So I wrote the program by myself. I called the program Forget It, because if you went there, forget the mission, it had aborted. But when it went to Forget It, nobody there knew what it did. So I was called at home, I had come in. What happens in Forget It? Come into this gamma room, we need you right away. So I did. And there it was. And so that was my first traumatic experience. The first drama that's memorable. And then, of course, that carried over into the manned missions, when I really worried about these things. But when something like that makes such an impact, you begin to think air detection recovery in real time.