“Everyone thought that programming was the easiest job, something like shorthand.” Rules of life for Margaret Hamilton, the self-taught programmer who conquered the moon
The first flight of a man to the Moon, the first footprint of a shoe on the Earth’s satellite, the words of astronaut Neil Armstrong that he uttered when he stepped on the lunar surface, the return alive from orbit – all this could not have happened without the painstaking work of a fragile woman wearing glasses – a leading development engineer Apollo space program Margaret Hamilton.
Surprisingly, laurels and recognition found her only when it became obvious to everyone that software development had turned from a not too serious occupation into a prestigious profession.
STUDY ON WORK
“My work did not imply any special respect. It seemed to everyone that programming was the easiest thing to do, something like shorthand on a typewriter. The main work was considered the processes associated with the ‘iron’,” recalled Margaret Hamilton.
After 50 years, she, a woman working on software for the Apollo 11 mission, was called a real discovery of the 20th century.
Margaret Hamilton has published over 130 scientific papers and founded her own company, Hamilton Technologies. She is also one of the few NASA employees immortalized in the form of a LEGO figure.
Hamilton herself has always been fond of the exact sciences. She was born in Indiana and studied mathematics at the University of Michigan.
Margaret received a Bachelor’s degree in Mathematics with a second specialization in Philosophy, and after studying in college she even managed to work as a school teacher. She taught Maths and French.
“Computer Science and Software Engineering did not exist yet as separate disciplines; programmers learned on the job,” Margaret Hamilton recalls of her first job in the lab, under the guidance of Professor Edward Lorenz, the “father” of chaos theory.
She had to develop a system that predicted the weather. There she saw a computer for the first time ever and became interested in software development.
What became clear from the Apollo project – that it is better to define systems in advance in order to minimize the number of errors, instead of immediately issuing a bunch of code, which will then have to be fixed with patches, which then also need to be patched… This lesson, apparently, remained unlearned – in this respect, software is developed today in the same way as 50 years ago
Later, Margaret Hamilton worked on the SAGE project at the Lincoln Laboratory, where she wrote software for the first AN / FSQ-7 (XD-1) computer to search for enemy aircraft. In NASA, she got “according to the ad”.
“In this company, it was customary to give newcomers a program that no one can figure out, much less run it. It was a very ingenious program, and besides, the author of the code took pleasure in writing comments on it exclusively in Greek and Latin.
I was given this task, and I made the program work. It even displayed the result in Greek and Latin. I was the first one to launch it,” Margaret recalled her first day at NASA, not without pleasure.
At NASA, she was responsible for the development of onboard software, which included algorithms developed by scientists from the Apollo Command Module. All codes were written by Margaret Hamilton by hand, printed out and combined into programs.
One of the most famous photographs is a 1969 photograph of a programmer standing next to a stack of printed source code for the Apollo mission’s main command computer, about her size.
“The photo was taken during the Apollo 11 mission by an MIT photographer especially for the newspapers. We got carried away, grabbed all the listings from Apollo in my office and built this tower. I tried to find a way to keep her upright.” said Margaret Hamilton.
She also liked to say: “I’ll clarify that this pile is only code – there are no reports on fixing bugs and logs!”
Human calculators who did their calculations by hand were overwhelmingly women, but they were not programmers
Margaret Hamilton often took her 4-year-old daughter Lauren to work. While she was creating programs, the girl slept peacefully on printouts of codes or played with the Apollo 8 computer simulator.
One day, Lauren turned on the P01 sequence, which is triggered before the launch of the spacecraft, when the simulator was already in “flight”. And this led to a system crash, the computer erased all the navigation data necessary for the flight.
Margaret Hamilton, just in case, added a few lines of code to prevent the possibility of launching the pre-launch segment during the flight and protect the system from failure.
Later, one of the Apollo 8 astronauts admitted that he pressed the dangerous button. If not for the preventive measures of Margaret Hamilton, it would certainly have been a tragedy.
“Margaret Hamilton symbolizes the generation of unsung women who helped send humankind into space,” said President Barack Obama in 2016 when he presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. This is America’s highest civilian honor.
She was awarded for developing a system that warned of in-flight emergencies and for popularizing the term software engineering (software development).
By the way, Margaret Hamilton coined this term out of desperation. She wanted to tell the world that she and her team are also engineers.
“Our astronauts did not have much time, but, fortunately, they had Margaret Hamilton,” said the President of the United States about her life mission at the award.
For women who are taking their first steps in programming, Margaret Hamilton advises the following: “Do not let fear take over you and do not be afraid to say “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand” – there are no stupid questions.”