Back in the early ’60s, hundreds of thousands of people worked together to send NASA astronauts to the moon on the first Apollo missions. Today, Margaret H. Hamilton — the lead for MIT’s nascent software engineering division, who wrote software for Apollo 11’s guidance and navigation, and also the person who coined the term ‘software engineering’ — was awarded the United States’ highest civilian honour.
Margaret Hamilton’s Presidential Medal of Freedom, presented to her today by outgoing president Barack Obama, comes almost 50 years after her initial contribution to NASA’s work on the Apollo 11 moon mission — when astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins travelled to the moon and back and Armstrong and Aldrin became the first humans to step onto Earth’s closest planetary body.
Software for the Apollo missions was NASA’s very first contract — before any other engineering or construction work — and went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where Hamilton was developing weather prediction software. She eventually moved over into the position of lead programmer on the Apollo contract, and contributed to building the software that successfully, safely landed the Apollo lander module despite user error and an overload of information.
Hamilton was responsible for the MIT team that built the Apollo command and lunar modules’ onboard navigation software, in an age where computer science as we know it now didn’t exist. And it worked perfectly. According to NASA, “the Apollo guidance software was so robust that no software bugs were found on any crewed Apollo missions, and it was adapted for use in Skylab, the Space Shuttle, and the first digital fly-by-wire systems in aircraft.”
The White House’s praise for Hamilton is similarly glowing: “A mathematician and computer scientist who started her own software company, Hamilton contributed to concepts of asynchronous software, priority scheduling and priority displays, and human-in-the-loop decision capability, which set the foundation for modern, ultra-reliable software design and engineering.” [NASA / White House]