Margaret Hamilton

Biography of Margaret Hamilton American scientist, notable computer scientist who worked at NASA in support of Apollo missions.

Click here if you want to see this biography in Spanish translation.

She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, presented on November 22, 2016 by the President of the United States, for her brilliant work during the Apollo missions in the 1960s.

Margaret Hamilton computer engineer

This brilliant mathematician, systems engineer, and computational scientist, was Director of the Software Engineering Division of the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory.

A century earlier, she had a worthy British predecessor named Ada Lovelace.

In this famous MIT lab, her team developed the navigation software for the Apollo Space Program.

Between 1969 and 1972, the Apollo program carried out 22 missions: 19 with total success, 2 with partial success and 1 with failure.

Among them, there were 6 in which the man stepped on the floor of the Moon.

Margaret Hamilton programas
Margaret Hamilton poses next to the lists of the programs that she developed for the navigation of the Apollo ships. Credit: Wikipedia

Childhood and studies of Margaret Hamilton

Margaret Hamilton was born on August 17, 1936. In 1954, she graduated from Thomas Hancock High School in Minnesota.

Four years later, she obtained the Bachelor of Arts in Mathematics at Earlham College, Richmond, Indiana (USA).

Earlham College
Earlham College, Richmond. Credit: Deansfa

Marriage and family of Margaret Hamilton

When she was studying at Earlham College, she met James Hamilton. They married in the late 1950s, after she graduated in mathematics. They have a daughter named Lauren.

Margaret Hamilton, software developer

With the intention of pursuing graduate studies, Margaret moved to Massachusetts.

However, once there, she preferred to accept work at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), as a software developer.

In those years, there were no programming languages ‚Äč‚Äčlike at the end of the 20th century.

Everything was done based on codes, so that they did not occupy too much space in the small memories of the computers, which were NOT made of silicon, but were housed in iron cores.

MIT hired Margaret Hamilton

From 1961 to 1963, she worked at MIT on an unknown aircraft trajectory tracking project.

She also wrote a program for the Cambridge Air Force Research Laboratory.

For this Laboratory, she developed codes for new programming routines.

The content of the programs was printed on “continuous paper” and stored in large folders. The meaning of those almost mysterious codes was available to very few.

At MIT, Margaret Hamilton was on the staff of the Draper Laboratory, founded in 1932 by Dr. Charles Stark Draper.

Margaret Hamilton responsible for the Apollo spacecraft software

In 1965 Margaret was named responsible for the development of the flight software for the computers that would go on board the Apollo spacecraft.

She subsequently directed and supervised the developments of the Skylab space station mission.

Charles Draper
Professor Charles Draper with Werner Von Braun. Credit: Draper Laboratories

Margaret Hamilton had no trouble reconciling her career at NASA with her mothering role.

On weekends, she took her daughter Lauren to the lab to spend time with her, while she worked writing the computer routines that would go on the Apollo command module computer.

Devising, writing, testing, and testing these routines was quite commendable.

In addition to requiring a deep understanding of computers, it was not easy to write just over 400,000 lines of code that were inserted into the operating system of the lunar module in the Apollo missions.

She knew “everything” about these vital programs.

Saturno 5
Takeoff of the Saturn5 rocket, on July 16, 1969, from the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: NASA.

Computer science Margaret Hamilton at the moon landing

This system played a crucial role just before the Apollo 11 moon landing on July 20, 1969.

As Neil Armstrong was already preparing to bring the ship down, the computer started displaying two errors: error 1201 and error 1202.

What followed next were brief messages from Apollo 11 to Robledo de Chabela in Spain; and from Spain to Houston, where Margaret was; from Houston to Robledo; and from Robledo to Apollo 11.

Armstrong had no time for lengthy explanations. In a few seconds he had to decide whether to land on the moon despite the risk or abort the landing and return with the honey on his lips.

Houston! What I do?!!! The solution came from a young Margaret who assured the Mission Director that she could safely ignore the two error messages.

The Director’s verdict reached Neil on the radio: “GO,” “Go ahead, free“. Soon after, Neil Armstrong radioed the expected message to Houston: “The Eagle has landed“, “The Eagle has landed“. The man had reached the Moon. It was July 20, 1969.

astronauta apolo
Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin Aldrin, the three astronauts who reached the Moon in July 1969. Credit: NASA

Without exaggeration, it could be said that the heroes of the arrival to the Moon were four: Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins and Margaret Hamilton.

Margaret Hamilton in later years

In 1986 Margaret founded the company “Hamilton Technologies” in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The company was developed around the Universal Language of Software Design Systems.

skylab 1973
Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin Aldrin, the three astronauts who reached the Moon in July 1969. Credit: NASA

When she was 80 years old, on November 22, 2016, Margaret Hamilton received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, presented by the President of the United States, Barack Obama, for her work at NASA during the Apollo missions.

Margaret and Obama
United States President Barack Obama presents the Medal of Freedom to an 80-year-old Margaret Hamilton. Credit: USA White House.

It is possible to find relevant details of the biography of this extraordinary pioneer on many websites.

Click here if you want to see this biography in Spanish translation.

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