Margaret Hamilton, a computer scientist who was pivotal in humans first landing on the Moon, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom this week, honoring her pioneering work.
In the ceremony led by President Barack Obama on Tuesday, Hamilton was one of 21 recipients of the award, the highest civilian award in the United States. Another female computer scientist, Grace Hopper, was also posthumously given an award.
“Everyone on this stage has touched me in a powerful personal way,” Obama said at the ceremony, reported the New York Times. “These are folks who have helped make me who I am and think about my presidency.”
Hamilton began working with NASA in the 1960s as part of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which she had joined as a computer scientist after completing her degree in mathematics from the University of Michigan.
MIT was given a contract by NASA in 1961 to develop the guidance and navigation system for the Apollo spacecraft that would go to the Moon, and Hamilton was put in charge of the Software Engineering Division. She worked long hours, aware of how pivotal her code was to the success of the mission.
“I was always imagining headlines in the newspapers, and they would point back to how it happened, and it would point back to me,” she told Wired.
Hamilton pictured in the Apollo Command Module. NASA
This work would prove crucial during the descent of Apollo 11 to the lunar surface. Just minutes before the landing, the software overrode a command, causing some confusion. But the resulting “1202 alarm” from the software let everyone know it was simply shedding less important tasks to give more focus to the engine. The landing was thus able to continue without aborting.
(In fact, the story behind this is incredibly interesting, as it was thanks to a young computer engineer called Jack Garman that the decision to ignore the alarm and proceed with the landing was made. He passed away in September this year.)
Also awarded the Medal of Freedom was Grace Hopper, a computer scientist who helped make coding languages more practical, along with creating the first compiler for code. She was known as “Amazing Grace” and “the first lady of software”, and remained at the forefront of programming from the 1940s through the 1980s. Hopper passed away in 1992, but was given the award posthumously.
Both Hamilton and Hopper were wholly deserving of their awards, and it’s great to see what might be regarded as unsung heroes given some deserved attention. Hamilton’s software would continue to be used through the later Apollo missions, and was adapted for NASA’s first space station (Skylab) and the Space Shuttle.