Behind the Amazing ’60s Woman Programmer Who Made the Moon Landing Possible

by Elizabeth Ollero

Yesterday, July 20th, marked the 46th anniversary of Apollo 11’s landing on the moon. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the first two people to walk on the moon, but they couldn’t have done it without Margaret Hamilton.

Not only did Hamilton lead the team at the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory (now the Draper Laboratory) that wrote the Apollo Guidance Computer, which navigated and controlled the spacecraft, but she pretty much saved the Apollo from missing its landing.


As Vox explains, “The rendezvous radar (the radar system to be used when leaving the moon and reconnecting with the control module) and the computer-aided guidance system in the lunar module used incompatible power supplies.” The radar overloaded the computer by sending too much data based on random electrical noise. There was no room for the computational tasks necessary for landing. Basically, Apollo 11 was screwed. But Hamilton, being the brilliant woman she is, anticipated this problem. She made the operating system resilient to this overloading. Plus, she and her team programmed the computer to automatically and almost instantaneously reboot to flush out the unimportant tasks, such as the data from the random electrical noise. Hella brill.

And listen to this: programming was once considered a woman’s job because it was seen as a simple task, like typing or filing. Women were often given the “simple” task of writing software, programming, and making hardware better. Hamilton coined this task as ‘software engineering.’ She told Verne, “When I first started using the phrase, it was considered to be quite amusing. It was an ongoing joke for a long time. They liked to kid me about my radical ideas. Software eventually and necessarily gained the same respect as any other discipline.” Today, Hamilton is 78 and runs the company she founded in 1986, Hamilton Technologies

Images via Vox and Twitter


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