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Scene at MIT: Margaret Hamilton’s Apollo code

A brief history of the famous 1969 photo of the software that sent humans to the moon.
Computer scientist Margaret Hamilton poses with the Apollo guidance software she and her team developed at MIT.
Caption:
Computer scientist Margaret Hamilton poses with the Apollo guidance software she and her team developed at MIT.
Credits:
Photos: MIT Museum

Half a century ago, MIT played a critical role in the development of the flight software for NASA’s Apollo program, which landed humans on the moon for the first time in 1969. One of the many contributors to this effort was Margaret Hamilton, a computer scientist who led the Software Engineering Division of the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory, which in 1961 contracted with NASA to develop the Apollo program’s guidance system. For her work during this period, Hamilton has been credited with popularizing the concept of software engineering. 

In recent years, a striking photo of Hamilton and her team’s Apollo code has made the rounds on social media and in articles detailing her key contributions to Apollo 11's success. According to Hamilton, this now-iconic image (at left, above) was taken at MIT in 1969 by a staff photographer for the Instrumentation Laboratory — later named the Draper Laboratory and today an independent organization — for use in promotion of the lab’s work on the Apollo project. The original caption, she says, reads:

“Here, Margaret is shown standing beside listings of the software developed by her and the team she was in charge of, the LM [lunar module] and CM [command module] on-board flight software team.”

Hamilton, now an independent computer scientist, described for MIT News in 2009 her contributions to the Apollo software — which last month was added in its entirety to the code-sharing site GitHub:

“From my own perspective, the software experience itself (designing it, developing it, evolving it, watching it perform and learning from it for future systems) was at least as exciting as the events surrounding the mission. … There was no second chance. We knew that. We took our work seriously, many of us beginning this journey while still in our 20s. Coming up with solutions and new ideas was an adventure. Dedication and commitment were a given. Mutual respect was across the board. Because software was a mystery, a black box, upper management gave us total freedom and trust. We had to find a way and we did. Looking back, we were the luckiest people in the world; there was no choice but to be pioneers.”

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Press Mentions

CBS Boston

CBS Boston speaks with Margaret Hamilton about her role in the Apollo 11 moon mission and her career at MIT. “I was the only woman in the beginning in the field,” says Hamilton. “I was oblivious to the difference between men and women. At MIT, they cared more about that you knew what you were doing and could help them solve their problem because they had a deadline.”

Smithsonian Magazine

Writing for Smithsonian, Alice George highlights Margaret Hamilton’s work leading the team at the MIT Instrumentation Lab that developed the software for the Apollo 11 mission. “She was a pioneer when it came to development of software engineering,” says Teasel Muir-Harmony, a curator at the National Air and Space Museum, and “a pioneer as a woman in the workplace contributing to this type of program, taking on this type of role.”

Wired

In an article for Wired celebrating 10 pioneering women in STEM, Emily Dreyfuss highlights the work of Margaret Hamilton, who led a team at the MIT Instrumentation Lab that developed the onboard flight software on the Apollo computers. Dreyfuss notes that without Hamilton, “the modern computing era would not be what it is today.”

Women You Should Know

Women You Should Know celebrates the 80th birthday of computer scientist Margaret Hamilton with a video spotlighting her work at MIT developing code for NASA’s Apollo program. Hamilton’s “Apollo code ultimately saved the Apollo 11 astronauts from having to abort their historic moon landing.” 

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