On May 23rd, the Intrepid Museum situated in New York City started off the summer of Apollo proceedings by bestowing the institution’s Lifetime Achievement Award to renowned software engineer Margaret Hamilton.
Margret Hamilton was head of the group of programmers who were in charge of running the computers on both the command and the landing unit of the Apollo 11 operation. At the beginning of her career, the field she was a part of was so novel that the term ‘software engineering’ was not yet formally established; Margaret Hamilton was responsible for coining it herself.
During her acceptance speech at the Intrepid Museum, Hamilton stated that the software experience of the Apollo 11 operation was, for her, as thrilling as the proceedings of the operation. She stated how, as developers, they had the chance of a lifetime, to be able to make every kind of error humanly imaginable.
To be clear, all of those imaginable errors were made prior to the launch of Apollo 11. While working on the project, Hamilton and her associates made sure to be always conscious of how well-tuned the software had to be.
Margaret Hamilton also recalled a major turning point of the operation which took place right when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were getting ready for touchdown. She stated how everything was going smoothly, Walter Cronkite reporting every detail of the mission as it occurred, when something very astonishing happened. Right when the astronauts were about to step on to the moon, the software’s priority displays substituted the astronauts’ normal mission screens with priority alarm screens to warn them of an emergency.
The warning appeared to be triggered by an askew switch, which the astronauts fixed and followed by landing safely on the moon. Hamilton fondly stated how the astronauts in the Apollo 11 operation went on to become the very first humans to step on the moon, and their software the very first software to have run on the moon.