July 21st marks the anniversary of man first stepping on the moon and the software that made it possible was created by a team lead by Margaret Hamilton.
After earning a BA in mathematics in 1958 she had planned on going to graduate school but accepted a job at MIT. Because of the newness of the field of computer science there weren’t classes in it – it was a hands on learning experience and Hamilton excelled.
In 1961 she was assigned to the SAGE Project at Lincoln Lab and as was tradition for beginners she was asked to fix a program that no one else was able to figure out. And she did and by making it work she opened the door to being part of one of the biggest projects at the time.
Joining the Draper Lab at MIT she was now part of the team working on the Apollo missions, eventually being named the director and supervisor of software programming for Apollo and Skylab. For the work with NASA her team was responsible for helping design the on-board guidance software that was required to navigate and land on the Moon.
As the lunar module from the Apollo 11 prepared to land on the surface of the moon it was almost aborted due to a switch being in the wrong position because of a faulty checklist. A radar system that wasn’t needed for landing was accidently on and sending data to the computer causing a potential overload. Because of the design of the computer’s software it was able to continue to run the high priority job of landing the craft and interrupt the low priority radar information. If the computer hadn’t been programmed to recognize and deal with this error on its own Hamilton theorizes that the lunar landing may not have happened.
Founding Hamilton Technologies in 1986 with a goal of providing technology, products and services to modernize systems engineering and software development through innovation, Hamilton remains the CEO and one of the first software engineers.
Written by Angela Goad