Honour for software writer on Apollo moon mission

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Margaret Hamilton Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Former School of Engineering and Lincoln Laboratory computing pioneer among 21 recipients of the nation’s highest civilian honor.

Margaret H. Hamilton, a pioneering computer scientist and former head of the Software Engineering Division of MIT’s Instrumentation Laboratory who led the development of on-board flight software for NASA’s Apollo moon missions, has been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Hamilton, who also spent time as a computer scientist at MIT Lincoln Laboratory before starting her own software company, was honored for her contributions “to concepts of asynchronous software, priority scheduling and priority displays, and human-in-the-loop decision capability, which set the foundation for modern, ultra-reliable software design and engineering.”

The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the nation’s highest civilian honor, presented by the sitting president to individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions to the national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.

“This is a tremendous and well-deserved honor for Margaret,” says Jaime Peraire, the H.N. Slater Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics and head of the MIT Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, which housed the Instrumentation Lab — a.k.a. Draper Lab — until it spun off into a private organization in 1973. “She was a true software engineering pioneer, and it’s not hyperbole to say that she, and the Instrumentation Lab’s Software Engineering Division that she led, put us on the moon.”

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Computer scientist Margaret Hamilton poses with the Apollo guidance software she and her team developed at MIT. Photos: MIT Museum

In fact, the Instrumentation Lab’s development of the Apollo guidance and control systems was the first major Apollo program contract, awarded August 9, 1961, just 10 weeks after President John F. Kennedy announced the goal of landing a human on the moon before the end of the decade.

Hamilton earned her undergraduate degree in mathematics from Earlham College, did postgraduate work in meteorology at MIT, and then moved to Lincoln Laboratory as part of the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment Air Defense System (SAGE) project. SAGE, the first air defense system for the country, cost more than the Manhattan Project and catapulted advances in early digital computing during the 1950s and 60s. After her work on SAGE and the Apollo software, Hamilton consulted on NASA’s space shuttle and Skylab programs before moving to the private sector.

Hamilton has become an icon for women in science and technology, especially in the few years since a now-famous photo, showing her next to a printout of her MIT team’s Apollo code, began circulating online. Last year, the Apollo software she helped to develop was added in its entirety to the code-sharing site GitHub. The first full line in the code reads: SUBMITTED: MARGARET H. HAMILTON DATE: 28 MAR 69 /  M.H.HAMILTON, COLOSSUS PROGRAMMING LEADER / APOLLO GUIDANCE AND NAVIGATION.

On Wednesday, President Barack Obama announced 21 winners of the 2016 Medals of Freedom. Other recipients include the late Grace Hopper, a fellow pioneer in computing technology; and Frank Gehry, the architect who designed MIT’s Ray and Maria Stata Center for Computer, Information, and Intelligence Sciences. A full list of 2016 Medal of Freedom winners is available via the White House, and an award ceremony is scheduled for Nov. 22 in Washington.

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