Margaret Hamilton: Lead Software Engineer on the Apollo Project

People forget that women were very much involved in software in the 1960s. Meet Margaret Hamilton: The Woman Behind the Apollo Project.

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.

The photo is of Hamilton standing next to a printout of the Apollo Guidance Computer program. The photo was taken for the Apollo 11 mission. Clicking on the image will take you to the NASA site that commemorates her receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016.

The very first contract NASA issued for the Apollo program (in August 1961) was with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to develop the guidance and navigation system for the Apollo spacecraft. Hamilton, a computer programmer, would wind up leading the Software Engineering Division of the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory (now Draper Labs). Computer science, as we now know it, was just coming into existence at the time. Hamilton led the team that developed the building blocks of software engineering – a term that she coined herself. Her systems approach to the Apollo software development and insistence on rigorous testing was critical to the success of Apollo. As she noted, “There was no second chance. We all knew that.”

And that code reflects the personality of designers. The routine that controls Master Ignition for the Command Module is headed by a comment that says…

BURN. BABY. BURN. — MASTER IGNITION ROUTINE

If you’re confused on how women got pushed out of computing, you aren’t alone. How Women Were Pushed Out of the Tech Industry.

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