Meet Margaret Hamilton: The Woman Behind the Apollo Project

Margaret Hamilton, lead Apollo flight software engineer, in the Apollo Command Module.
Margaret Hamilton, lead Apollo flight software engineer, in the Apollo Command Module.
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

When man (or more specifically, a man) stepped foot on the surface of the Moon on July 20, 1969, software was a relatively new development. In fact, the Moon mission was one of the first times this kind of engineering was used in such a fundamental—not to mention high-stakes—way. History was being written that day, and a woman named Margaret Hamilton had authored the code that made it possible.

Hamilton was born in 1936, and received a B.A. in math from Earlham College. She taught herself to program before becoming the director of the Software Engineering Division of the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory, which developed software for the NASA Apollo programs.

In the photo below, Hamilton stands with printouts of the code for the Apollo Guidance Computer—the same code that helped us reach the Moon—which was developed by the team that she led, and much of which she wrote herself. This shot was taken during the Apollo 11 mission, when Hamilton was 33 years old. Her code ran in one of the first ever chip-based computers, which had only 64 kilobytes of memory.

Hamilton, who was among the first women to join the world of software development, was a modern day pioneer. She is even credited with coining the term software engineering. For her contributions to the field, Hamilton received the Augusta Ada Lovelace Award from the Association of Women in Computing in 1986, the NASA Exceptional Space Act Award in 2003, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (America's highest civilian honor) in 2016.

In 2014, Hamilton was interviewed by El País about the attention she has received from the circulation of her photo online. She explained:

"Software during the early days of this project was treated like a stepchild and not taken as seriously as other engineering disciplines, such as hardware engineering; and it was regarded as an art and as magic, not a science. I had always believed that both art and science were involved in its creation, but at that time most thought otherwise. Knowing this, I fought to bring the software legitimacy so that it (and those building it) would be given its due respect and thus I began to use the term “software engineering” to distinguish it from hardware and other kinds of engineering; yet, treat each type of engineering as part of the overall systems engineering process. When I first started using this phrase, it was considered to be quite amusing. It was an ongoing joke for a long time. They liked to kid me about my radical ideas. Software eventually and necessarily gained the same respect as any other discipline."

Hamilton also wrote that the Apollo 11 mission had the "most exciting, memorable moments on the Apollo project," but that Apollo 8 was a close second.

This story has been updated for 2019.

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Don't Miss Saturn And Jupiter's Great Conjunction on the Winter Solstice

Paul Williams, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Paul Williams, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

In 2020, skygazers were treated to meteor showers, a new comet, and a Halloween blue moon. One of the last major astronomical events of the year is set to fall on the night of the winter solstice. On December 21, look up to catch Saturn in conjunction with Jupiter.

What is the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter?

In astronomy, a conjunction occurs when two planets appear exceptionally close in the night sky. Two of our solar system's gas giants will share a celestial "kiss" on the longest night of the year. The rare meeting of Saturn and Jupiter is known as the "great conjunction" by astronomers.

Though conjunctions between the planets are fairly common, Saturn and Jupiter only get together once in a generation. Their last conjunction happened 20 years ago in the year 2000. Even if you were around for the last one, 2020's planetary meet-up is worth catching. Saturn and Jupiter will come within 0.1° of each other, or about one-fifth the width of a full moon. The last time the two planets came that close was in 1653, and they won't match that proximity again until 2080.

How to see the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter

Saturn and Jupiter have been inching closer throughout October and November. You can find them now by looking for Jupiter, currently the brightest planet in the night sky, right after sunset. Saturn will appear just east of Jupiter as a dimmer planet with a golden hue.

As autumn wanes, the two planets will gradually bridge the space between them until they reach conjunction on winter solstice. On Monday, December 21, the planets will be so close that they may form a coalescence. That happens when the light from two planets appear to shine as a single star. When that happens, the super-bright body will be easy to spot.