Engineer receives highest US honor granted to civilians.
On Tuesday president Obama awarded his last Medals of Freedom, the highest honor available for civilians in the United States. Among the 21 recipients, the award was given to Margaret Hamilton, the engineer who designed the onboard flight software for NASA’s Apollo lunar modules and command modules.
Hamilton invented the term “software engineer” and began her career as a computer programmer at MIT in the 1960s. She began working for NASA, who in 1961 contracted MIT to design their spacecrafts’ guidance and navigational systems. Hamilton was in charge of the in-flight system, including an alarm which proved crucial during the final moments of the moon landing in 1969.
The alarm was designed to identify and warn when the computer was being overloaded, and disable non-critical functions while maintaining those functions which were crucial for the flight. During the moon landing, the alarm rang due to a faulty radar system which was then disabled, freeing processing power so that the crew could focus on steering the thrusters of the lander.
During the award ceremony, Obama said that Hamilton represents “that generation of unsung women who helped send humankind into space.” Hamilton however, has been recognized for her service before. In 2003, she received an award from NASA for her pioneering work, and found widespread recognition in 2015, when a picture of her circulated, standing next an enormous stack of books containing her code.
Margaret Hamilton was known for her attention to detail and rigorous testing of her work. During an interview with Wired, she relates how she left a party one night because she realized there a flaw in her code. “I was always imagining headlines in the newspapers, and they would point back to how it happened, and it would point back to me,” she said.
Among other recipients of the reward were Ellen DeGeneres and Michael Jordan, as well as Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates, along with his wife Melinda. The award was also given to programming pioneer Grace Hopper, who received the award posthumously.