Today I have a special guest, L.D. Fairchild writing a post. L.D. Fairchild is an author of young adult fiction. She’s contributed a post about a strong woman who was nearly forgotten. Please give L.D. Fairchild a warm welcome and comment on her post, She Saved the Moon Landing.
by L. D. Fairchild
It’s July 20, 1969. The world is watching as U.S. astronauts attempt to land on the moon. The lunar module nears the surface of the moon. The world holds its breath.
The computer is overloaded. Fuel is running out. A decision has to be made about whether to abort the landing.
Software engineer Margaret Hamilton is monitoring the moon landing from her lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. While engineers and astronauts hold their breath, Margaret Hamilton’s software quickly begins compensating for the overload, focusing on the most important tasks and ignoring the others.
The lunar module safely touches down on the moon, and Margaret Hamilton and the team of software engineers she leads have saved the moon landing.
Who is Margaret Hamilton?
Despite playing a pivotal role in the success of the Apollo program, receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom and having her own Lego minifigure, you may never have heard of Margaret Hamilton.
Hamilton was born on August 17, 1936, in Paoli, Indiana. Her family moved to Michigan where she graduated from high school and attended the University of Michigan before transferring to Earlham College where she earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics.
After graduating, she married and a year later, she and her husband moved to Boston, Massachusetts, where he would attend Harvard Law School. Her daughter was born in 1959, and Hamilton took a job in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology lab of Edward Lorenz, best known for his work on chaos theory. Her work on software that could predict the weather introduced her to the work that would become her passion.
In 1964, after working on software that could detect enemy aircraft, she answered an advertisement from the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory that was looking for people to write software to “send men to the moon.” She applied and got the job overseeing the project. She would eventually have 100 people on the team that would develop the software that would eventually save the moon landing.
A Working Mom
As a working mom, Hamilton would sometimes bring her daughter to the lab with her. On one such occasion, Hamilton was running a moon landing simulation. Her daughter, imitating her mother, hit a sequence of buttons that caused the computer to shut down the simulation. After figuring out what her daughter had done, Hamilton realized an astronaut could make the same mistake.
She requested that NASA allow for a change in the code. They told her the astronauts were too well-trained to make mistakes. However, on the Apollo 8 mission, one of the astronauts made the exact same mistake, and while Hamilton and her team were able to get the mission back on track, the code was changed before the next mission.
A Team Leader
In 1964, it was unusual for a woman to lead a team designing software. First, software engineering was a new field (Hamilton actually coined the term “software engineering”). Second, very few female software engineers existed. Third, having a woman in charge was unusual in many fields.
When Hamilton took the position as the team lead, one of her bosses was worried that the men under her might rebel at being led by a woman. However, Hamilton recalls that she had no problems. In an interview with The Guardian she said, “More than anything, we were dedicated to the missions and worked side by side to solve the challenging problems and to meet the critical deadlines.”
When the alarms started blaring in the lunar module, the concern over losing astronauts was real. When the lunar module finally landed, it had only 30 seconds of fuel left. Mission Control had limited time to make a Go/No Go call.
They were able to say “Go” because Hamilton’s software worked exactly as designed. The lunar module had only 72 kilobytes of processing power to work with. Many cell phones today have more than a million times that processing power.
The small capacity for processing meant that the computer could only do a few things at a time. Hamilton and her team recognized those limitations and created software that could decide which things were the most important at that moment, so the computer would use its processing power for the most critical tasks.
An investigation would later reveal that the astronaut checklist was incorrect, and the astronauts had set the rendezvous radar hardware switch incorrectly, causing the alarm. The software was able to recognize that giving processing power to that switch was a low-priority item, so it reallocated its processing power to critical landing tasks, an innovation that landed men safely on the moon.
Our astronauts didn’t have much time, but thankfully they had Margaret Hamilton.”President Barack Obama when awarding Hamilton
the Presidential Medal of Freedom
Hamilton would continue to work for NASA until 1972 when she left to start her own company Higher Order Software. She would found another company, Hamilton Technologies, Inc., in 1984. Hamilton Technologies developed Universal Systems Language, a tool that helps prevent errors in software based on the patterns she saw during her time developing software at NASA.
In a time when the field of software engineering was in its infancy and female software engineers were nearly non-existent, Margaret Hamilton forged her own path – even when it led to the moon.
L.D. Fairchild is an author and freelance writer who fell in love with all things space-related as a teenager. She is passionate about encouraging young girls to not be afraid to dream big dreams even if they’re unconventional. She writes young adult fiction that features strong, smart heroines saving the world. She also writes a series of children’s mystery books under the pen name Lori Briley that focus on encouraging girls to stand up for what they know is right and to try new things – even if they’re the only girl doing it. You can learn more about her and her books at ldfairchildauthor.com.
Middle Photo: NASA, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Last Photo: Draper Laboratory; restored by Adam Cuerden., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons