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This Female Coder Wrote the Apollo Project by Hand

Margaret Hamilton oversaw MIT's groundbreaking Software Engineering Division.

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  • Margaret Hamilton, lead Apollo flight software engineer, in the Apollo Command Module.Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

More than 50 years ago, the United States put two men on the moon. Their names are famous to this day. But far lesser known is the woman who helped put them there, Margaret Hamilton. 

Hamilton and her team of software engineers at the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory wrote the sprawling code that made the mission possible.

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Hamilton was only in her early 30s when she led a team of the best software engineers in the country on this project. At the time, it was a new field of study. But with a knack for mathematics and after a stint working in meteorology at MIT (she helped develop a project that worked to predict the weather), Hamilton became director of the Software Engineering Department and moved to the Apollo project.

Margaret Hamilton
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  • Hamilton stands next to the navigation software that she and her MIT team produced for the Apollo program.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

By 1969, Hamilton and her crew had created new software for Apollo and Skylab, including in-flight software for the command module and lunar lander. 

And she was the right person for the job; her efforts may have just allowed the entire project to work. She developed error detection and recovery software, allowing the aircraft to restart and update for real-time fixes. Hamilton herself designed this method, which is more impressive considering that courses on this subject did not exist at the time. 

With her own two hands and with trial and error, she helped develop this life-changing software. In fact, it was the Apollo project that prompted Hamilton, along with others, to coin the term "software engineering". She began using the term to describe her work, although she has said it wasn't taken seriously at the time. Today, it’s an everyday term and a respected field in its own right.

The Apollo code was also hand-written (likely later printed) on physical paper. The entire compilation was as tall as Hamilton herself. Just imagine that today—reams of paper dedicated to code, with no backup, no room for mistake—we’re impressed at just the thought of it!

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For her efforts, Hamilton is widely renowned in the mathematics community and has continued to make waves for the entirety of her career. She went on to found two software companies, one of which helped MIT further reduce computer and code errors. Some of her clients included the US Air Force and other government entities. 

However, decades passed before she began to receive the accolades she deserved. Hamilton received her first award in the 1980s from the Association for Women in Computing. 

Margaret Hamilton and Barack Obama
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  • Barack Obama presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Margaret Hamilton in 2016.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Then, in 2003, she was given the NASA Exceptional Space Act Award for scientific and technical contributions. She also earned their biggest monetary award to date, at more than $37,000.

In 2016, then-president Barack Obama presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The honor is the highest civilian award in the country. 

Related: The Soviet-American Space Alliance

Hamilton has also been featured as a LEGO set through the “Women of NASA” series, and was given the Intrepid Lifetime Achievement Award in 2019. 

Today, Margaret Hamilton is retired. At 85 years old, she is considered one of the biggest pioneers of computer science, and one of the driving forces that helped make the Apollo mission a success.