Blog, Tech History

Margaret Hamilton: How One Woman Made Apollo 11 Possible

Margaret Hamilton. You may not recognize the name, but, if not for her legendary programming skills, Neil Armstrong’s famous ‘One Small Step’ speech not only may have been delivered by someone else — but quite probably in Russian.

Hamilton and her team of programmers at MIT wrote one of the most important pieces of software ever written, and in doing so changed the world for all mankind, men and women alike. The Apollo 11 mission that first put man on the moon on July 10, 1969 was made possible by guidance software written by Hamilton’s team. They wrote the code that allowed the Apollo Guidance Computer units in the mission’s command module and lunar landing module to successfully navigate to the moon, land, and return to earth.

Under Hamilton’s leadership, the team not only wrote code that worked, but code that save the mission from almost certain failure. NASA was aware of problems between the Apollo Guidance Computer and the on-board radar on the lander. The radar, which was largely useless during the landing sequence, would nonetheless flood the guidance computer with an overwhelming storm of unnecessary data that could easily overwhelm and shut down guidance during the most crucial part of the landing sequence.

The coding team was aware of this, and wrote the guidance program in such a way that the guidance computer could be quickly restarted and the code reloaded mid-landing sequence. Their foresight made the Apollo 11 landing possible when, as expected, the guidance computer faulted and had to be restarted during the landing. NASA recognized Hamilton for her contributions to the Apollo program by awarding her the Exceptional Space Act Award in 2003.

Today, at 80, Margaret Hamilton is still playing an active role in technology in her role as CEO of Hamilton Technologies Inc. of Cambridge, MA. Founded in 1986, HTI has build upon lessons learned during the Apollo program to develop a revolutionary programming language known as Universal Systems Language (USL), which HTI claims has unequaled reliability for use in high-demand computing tasks.Save