Computer Science History Space Technology

Margaret Hamilton: Pioneer Software Engineer

Enjoyable, if brief, interview with Margaret Hamilton, who lead the software team for the Apollo moonshots. I can’t help but notice how few men are ever asked how their lives as parents ever collides with their work.

Q: Did your life as a software engineer and a mother ever collide?
A: Often in the evening or at weekends I would bring my young daughter, Lauren, into work with me. One day, she was with me when I was doing a simulation of a mission to the moon. She liked to imitate me – playing astronaut. She started hitting keys and all of a sudden, the simulation started. Then she pressed other keys and the simulation crashed. She had selected a program which was supposed to be run prior to launch – when she was already “on the way” to the moon. The computer had so little space, it had wiped the navigation data taking her to the moon. I thought: my God – this could inadvertently happen in a real mission. I suggested a program change to prevent a prelaunch program being selected during flight. But the higher-ups at MIT and Nasa said the astronauts were too well trained to make such a mistake. Midcourse on the very next mission – Apollo 8 – one of the astronauts on board accidentally did exactly what Lauren had done. The Lauren bug! It created much havoc and required the mission to be reconfigured. After that, they let me put the program change in, all right.

Children do make good testers – no fears about pressing the wrong buttons! Also, reassuring to know that even the ‘well trained’ make mistakes.