The outgoing Obama administration in the United States recently held a ceremony to honour some of the most remarkable people that the “Land of the Free” have ever produced. Notable actors like Tom Hanks and Robert De Niro, exemplified the acting profession, and many more equally deserving people gained this highest honour as well. But one lady in particular, in our opinion was more deserving than most, and also in our opinion, the Presidential Medal of Freedom should have been awarded to her a long time ago.
Margaret Hamilton may not be the household name that Neil Armstrong or Buzz Aldrin are, but the role she played in humankind’s greatest ever endeavour is so monumental and so ahead of its time, that the impact her work has had, is still being felt to this day.
At the start of the Apollo program the very first contract NASA sent out was to MIT, where their legendary leader Charles Draper, had worked on inertial guidance, flying an aircraft “blind” across the United States using his remarkable technology, which went on to be a huge part of Apollo and also missile and defence systems.
Margaret Hamilton, a computer programmer, (a rare enough job for anyone, let alone a woman in the 1960’s) was tasked with writing parts of the code for the Apollo guidance computer. This would be taking something that in the late 1950s was the size of a basketball court and condensing it to an interface the size of a modern laptop and a main system about the size of a small dining table top.
During her remarkable career, Hamilton led the team that developed the foundations of what we now call software engineering, literally writing the book on the subject as they went along. her approach to how the computer worked with scheduling and her almost relentless testing of the systems, meant that the computers literally held up throughout everything. From the 1202 alarm (and only this approach made the landing possible, as the computer was handling the data interrupts correctly) through Apollo 13 and on to Skylab and even the Shuttle.
One of the first computers where it literally was life or death if it crashed or failed, Hamilton’s work set the foundations for how we code even to this day. With none of the fancy software tools and syntax we have, this really was coding on a whole new level.
50 + years on from her groundbreaking work which went all the way through Apollo and on to her founding her own software company (and much more), this honour is well deserved and is the highest civilian award of the United States,
It is only awarded to those who have made an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavours.
In Margaret Hamilton, nothing could be more true. She is an inspiration, not only to women everywhere, but to computer scientists and engineers everywhere.
Thank you Margaret, and all your team at MIT, for making the impossible possible