It was on this day, July 20, in 1969, that life without software engineer Apollo 11 astronauts reached the moon and Neil Armstrong took his famous small step. People celebrated the world over, though few were more relieved than Margaret Hamilton.
But I was more happy about it working than about the fact that we landed. Apollo 11’s on-board flight software, which Hamilton, as part of the MIT team working with NASA, led the effort to build. There was no guarantee things would play out so smoothly. In fact, just before the lunar landing was supposed to happen, alarms went off indicating that there wasn’t enough room on the computer for the landing software to work effectively.
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Turns out a radar was sending unnecessary data to the computer, overloading it with superfluous information. The work that Hamilton had done helped enable the computer to figure out which of the multiple processes it had to do was most important. That fix gave NASA the confidence to go ahead with the historic moon landing. Hamilton was later given NASA’s Exceptional Space Act Award for her work on those Apollo systems. Hamilton says that she was so wrapped up in her work that she didn’t notice the gender problems of the time until Mad Men came around and seemed a little too familiar. Even if gender wasn’t uppermost in her mind, she did advance that cause too: Hamilton recalls that a woman on her team was told by the MIT credit union that she couldn’t get a loan without her husband’s signature, though male applicants didn’t need spousal approval.
But they could run lots of tests on the ground. I’ve been on a mission in its own right, working with this Universal Systems Language, which allows you to get things up front. It’s kind of like a root canal: you waited till the end, there are things you could have done beforehand. It’s like preventative healthcare, but it’s preventative software.