The Apollo 11 moon landing was one giant leap for womankind.
Credit Margaret Hamilton, a 32-year-old mother and computer whiz at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who wrote the software that placed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon on July 20, 1969.
She also worked on the five moon-landing missions that followed.
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The director of software engineering at MIT’s Instrumentation Laboratory, Hamilton was a pioneer of computer science in a transformative era, and on a transformative mission, in human history.
“The moon landing should be remembered for the spirit of possibility that turned science fiction into reality,” NASA chief historian Brian Odom told Fox News Digital.
“Margaret Hamilton,” he added, “was instrumental to that success.”
Working in fields dominated by men, Hamilton often had her toddler at her side as she wrote the code that changed mankind’s relationship with the heavens forever.
“There was no second chance. We took our work seriously, many of us beginning this journey while still in our 20s.” — Margaret Hamilton
She pioneered asynchronous software, or the ability of a program to handle multiple functions at the same time.
Her foresight saved the Apollo 11 mission from potential disaster minutes before the lunar module Eagle touched down on the moon.
She is also credited with coining the phrase “software engineer” — a job title now ubiquitous in business culture.
Yet Hamilton lived in the shadows of NASA lore for decades — her name and incredible role in one of humanity’s greatest achievements known only to friends and Apollo program insiders.
It took NASA itself more than 30 years to honor the women whose programming ingenuity put men on the moon.
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“I was surprised to discover she was never formally recognized for her groundbreaking work,” Dr. Paul Curto, senior technologist for NASA’s Inventions and Contributions Board, said in 2003 when Hamilton was finally honored with a NASA Exceptional Space Act Award.
“Her concepts of asynchronous software, priority scheduling, end-to-end testing and man-in-the-loop decision capability, such as priority displays, became the foundation for ultra-reliable software design.”
Hamilton’s star began to rise, finally, over American science in recent years, when an incredible photo emerged on social media showing the smiling young woman beside a stack of papers that reached the top of her head.
The image of Hamilton with her remarkable pile of programming was captured at MIT Instrumentation Laboratory, now known as Draper Labs, in 1969.
“The moon landing should be remembered for the spirit of possibility that turned science fiction into reality.” — NASA historian Brian Odom
It represented the giant intellect of a small-town midwestern young woman who helped secure one of the great achievements in human history.
“There was no second chance,” Hamilton told MIT News in 2009 of the Apollo 11 moon mission.
“We knew that. We took our work seriously, many of us beginning this journey while still in our 20s.”
Small-town girl with big dreams
Margaret Elaine (Heafield) Hamilton was born on Aug. 17, 1936 in Paoli, Indiana, to Kenneth Heafield and Ruth Esther (Partington) Heafield.
Her father wrote poetry and encouraged her artistic side, which complemented her obvious mathematic and technical skills.
The family moved to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where Hamilton graduated from rural Hancock High School in 1954.
“She was obviously somebody interested in breaking through barriers, even as a child,” author Dean Robbins told Fox News Digital.
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“She wondered why insects were called daddy long legs, so she started calling them mommy long legs. She joined the boys’ baseball team to prove she could do it.”
Robbins is among the many people inspired in recent years by the image of the smiling all-American girl standing next to the giant stack of computer programming.
He wrote the children’s book “Margaret and the Moon” in 2017, sharing Hamilton’s story with young readers, aided by whimsical illustrations from Lucy Knisley.
Hamilton entered college at the University of Michigan, before transferring to tiny Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, where she studied mathematics and philosophy.
“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon.” — President Kennedy, 1961
She began working for MIT in 1959, first under the tutelage of pioneering computer scientist and meteorologist Edward Norton Lorenz.
By 1961, she was helping MIT develop defense systems for the U.S. military, while working to put her then-husband, James Cox Hamilton, through law school.
Hamilton’s trajectory — humanity’s trajectory — began to change when President John F. Kennedy issued an audacious call to the nation in a speech before a joint session of Congress on May 26, 1961.
“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth,” the president said in his dramatic challenge.
“As a working mother in the 1960s, Hamilton was unusual; but as a spaceship programmer, Hamilton was positively radical.” — Wired magazine
“In order to accomplish the mission, somebody had to invent the modern concept of software,” said Odom.
That somebody was Hamilton.
She was put in charge of MIT Instrumentation Laboratory’s software engineering division in 1965.
“As a working mother in the 1960s, Hamilton was unusual; but as a spaceship programmer, Hamilton was positively radical,” Wired magazine wrote in 2015.
“Hamilton would bring her daughter Lauren by the lab on weekends and evenings. While 4-year-old Lauren slept on the floor of the office overlooking the Charles River, her mother programmed away, creating routines that would ultimately be added to the Apollo’s command module computer.”
‘Something totally unexpected’
Hamilton — along with her pioneering asynchronous software for the first moon mission itself — faced a moment of truth on June 20, 1969.
“I had lived through several missions before Apollo 11 and each was exciting in its own right, but this mission was special,” Hamilton told MIT News in 2009.
“We had never landed on the moon before. The media, most notably Walter Cronkite, was reporting everything in great detail. Once it was time for liftoff, I focused on the software and how it was performing throughout each and every part of the mission.”
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The Apollo 11 lunar module, the Eagle, was just three minutes away from landing on the moon when disaster threatened to strike.
“Everything was going according to plan until something totally unexpected happened, just as the astronauts were in the process of landing on the moon,” Hamilton said in that same interview.
Alarms and errors messages shocked the astronauts and mission controllers.
The astronauts had a faulty checklist, one that incorrectly told them to hit the rendezvous radar hardware switch.
Aldrin, following the checklist, hit the wrong button, Odom said, one that told the onboard computer to rendezvous with the command module rather than continue on its flight to the moon.
Mission Control was faced with the possibility of aborting the mission — or, worse, losing Aldrin and Armstrong.
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Yet Hamilton had built the software, primitive by today’s standards, to compensate for just such a scenario.
“For a moment Mission Control faced a ‘go/no-go’ decision, but with high confidence in the software developed by computer scientist Margaret Hamilton and her team, they told the astronauts to proceed,” Smithsonian Magazine wrote of the frightening moments before the moon landing.
“The software, which allowed the computer to recognize error messages and ignore low-priority tasks, continued to guide astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin over the crater-pocked, dusty crust of the moon to their landing.”
Said Hamilton of the anxious moments, “It quickly became clear that the software was not only informing everyone that there was a hardware-related problem, but that the software was compensating for it,” she told MIT News.
With only minutes to spare, the decision was made to go for the landing.
“Fortunately, the people at Mission Control trusted our software,” she said.
Hamilton’s software had saved the moon mission. The Eagle landed with just 30 seconds of flight fuel left.
‘We had to find a way and we did’
Margaret Hamilton is now 86 years old. She ran her own software companies after completing her work with NASA in the 1970s.
She has rarely given interviews in her career. She did not respond to requests this week from Fox News Digital.
“We had to find a way and we did,” Hamilton told MIT News in 2009 of her effort as a young computer scientist to help humankind break the bounds of earth.
“Looking back, we were the luckiest people in the world; there was no choice but to be pioneers.”
She’s become something of an unwilling celebrity in the wake of her 1969 photo making the rounds on social media — the recognition long overdue to her many fans of today.
“Looking back, we were the luckiest people in the world; there was no choice but to be pioneers.” — Margaret Hamilton
Hamilton was honored by President Obama with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016, alongside fellow American luminaries Tom Hanks, Michael Jordan, Bruce Springsteen and others.
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She earned pop-culture acclaim the following year, when Lego released its Women of NASA set, featuring Hamilton along with female space pioneers astronauts Mae Jemison and Sally Ride and former NASA chief astronomer and “Mother of Hubble” Nancy Roman.
Hamilton was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 2022.
She continued to work on NASA software right up through the Skylab, the first U.S. space station, in 1973. Her work powered the five moon landings that followed Apollo 11.
The last of them, Apollo 17, took place in December 1972.
No man — or woman — has reached the moon since.
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“There is this old cliché in the space program,” said NASA historian Odom. “If you want to know how difficult it was to put men on the moon, just try doing it again.”
(NASA aims to land astronauts on the moon by 2025 or so as part of the Artemis program.)
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