What I find fascinating about her work was the fact that she was building the field of computer software engineering as she went along. The brilliance of her work wasn't so much that she build a system to help the astronauts reach the moon, but that she built it to basically save them from their own mistakes.
"There was no second chance. We all knew that."When NASA began its quest to send the first humans to the moon, there was immense pressure to make certain that whomever went up into space also came back down safely. Too much was riding on the success of the moon landing and any mistake could have dire consequences for the astronauts. It would be devastating to the space program if something terrible happened with millions of people around the world sitting on the edge of their seats watching each space launch and landing.
Astronauts are highly trained, intelligent people, selected for their ability to function under extreme pressure. But even astronauts make mistakes, push the wrong button, switch the wrong knob. How do you reconcile the absolute need for "no room for error" with the fact that "to err is human?"
Margaret Hamilton figured out a way.
When she joined the team of engineers working on the Apollo program, she brought with her a brilliant mind trained in both abstract mathematics and philosophy. This might seem like an unusual combination of interests, but its exactly what made her the perfect person to solve the problem facing NASA. Not only did she manage the team that wrote the code for the computers running the space ships, she created the entire system that would handle each process and correct for any human error that might endanger the astronauts while in space. She studied the mistakes they made in training exercises and made sure to include responses in the code to prevent these kinds of accidents from becoming an international tragedy during the actual mission.
And because there was no such thing as a software engineer before, she did it all from scratch, creating an entirely new field of engineering in the process.
[Image: Margaret Hamilton in one of the Apollo capsules, with an overlay of a photo of the Apollo command code printed on green bar paper.]
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