The Woman Who Landed The First Man On The Moon

By Ivy Kuo, Legends Report Writer

How a young female engineer unintentionally became responsible for NASA’s moon landing and saved Apollo 11 from a critical error...

Forty-seven years ago, the first man landed on the moon- and he largely owes his success to one remarkable engineer and the mother of software engineering: Margaret Hamilton. It was her engineering work that saved Apollo 11 from crashing only minutes before landing on the moon. On November 22, 2016, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, handpicked by President Barack Obama for her monumental contributions towards the successful mission/landing. After several decades of service to her country, Margaret Hamilton has finally been recognised through the highest civilian award in the America. So who is this pioneering woman that you may never have heard of until now?

In the 1960s, at a time when computer science was just an emerging field, Margaret Hamilton and her team were stepping into vastly unknown territory. Back then, Miss Hamilton was a scientist who diligently worked hard and believed in the value of perseverance despite stepping into such unknown territory. In recognition of their work, she and her team were tasked with programming the first manned Apollo spaceship.

Not bad for one of your first major jobs...

Pioneering Software Engineering

At the same time, the team were unknowingly creating the $400 billion industry of software engineering that it is today. Coding was a barely emerging field during that time, and Miss Hamilton led her team into the unchartered waters of digital innovation. In fact, she was the one to coin the term “software engineering”!

The 1960s was not an era of encouragement for women looking for technical careers; Miss Hamilton herself was a 24-year-old working mother at the world famous MIT (Massachusets Institute of Technology), in a laboratory with an undergraduate degree in mathematics. She initially started the job to support her husband through law school. However, her fate changed when MIT partnered with NASA to engineer their spaceship software.

“When I first got into it, nobody knew what it was that we were doing. It was like the Wild West. There was no course in it. They didn’t teach it.”

Fitting In At NASA

Margaret Hamilton was certainly an unusual employee; not only a female in an all-male workplace but also a mother who often brought along her 4-year-old to work when her husband was at law school! Instead of ostracising herself from her peers based on their gender, she fully immersed herself into the work culture, and greatly enjoyed the camaraderie and geeky jokes among her colleagues. In fact, she even says she felt like “one of the guys.” Unbeknownst to her, Miss Hamilton was paving the way for others to follow in a male-dominated STEM world (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), which still remains male-dominated to this day.

She was also known for her meticulous attention to detail, thoroughly testing every aspect of the software development. Miss Hamilton's impressive work ethic proved itself on the day of Apollo 11's launch, July 20, 1969.

"There was no second chance...”

“We all knew that."

Preventing Crisis Through Preparation

Only three minutes before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon, the NASA computer produced alarming error messages from suddenly being overloaded with unnecessary calculations, when the only thing it was supposed to focus on was landing on the surface of the moon. As Miss Hamilton and her fellow engineers watched from Houston, they had faith in Miss Hamilton’s work, for they knew they had engineered it to prioritise the most important task at hand: landing on the moon’s 'Sea of Tranquillity'. And sure enough, the computer system eventually shed the extraneous task, and successfully steered and landed the Apollo 11.

It's due to Miss Hamilton’s engineering that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were able to land on the Moon. Without her careful attention to programming, the computer would have fully overwhelmed itself and aborted the mission. NASA states that the software was "so robust that no software bugs were found on any crewed Apollo missions." This actually led to Miss Hamilton's software being adapted for use in other aircraft systems.

Despite working in a field that was largely unknown of at the time, Margaret Hamilton's diligence and commitment to self-learning is truly inspiring. She didn’t balk in a mysterious new field of science nor in the face of one of the greatest responsibilities of her career; rather, she wholly embraced the challenge and used her scholarly mind to consider every meticulous detail. Be sure that this was no fluke. Margaret Hamilton had been preparing herself for this opportunity just in the way she conducted herself. The foundational principles of any truly successful person are awareness and responsibility. Through heightened awareness, we can anticipate challenges and opportunities. And when we face those challenges - when we are tested, it is only through standing up and taking responsibility, to say I will do this - rather than waiting for others to lead - that we make breakthroughs. Clearly, her passion for her work shines through, for we have her to thank for putting the first man on the moon!

How To Apply This!

Have you ever stepped up in the midst of a difficult challenge in your life? If so, what was it? Take some time to reflect on what you learnt from it...

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