(IJCH) Margaret Hamilton - She could've prevented an Apollo 8 problem, but wasn't allowed! (or How Hamilton's alarm software saved Apollo 11!)


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About Margaret Hamilton


Margaret Heafield Hamilton (born on August 17, 1936) is an American computer scientist, systems engineer, and business owner.

She was Director of the Software Engineering Division of the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory, which developed on-board flight software for the Apollo space program.

In 1986, she became the founder and CEO of Hamilton Technologies, Inc., in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The company was developed around the Universal Systems Language based on her paradigm of Development Before the Fact (DBTF) for systems and software design.

Hamilton has published over 130 papers, proceedings, and reports about the 60 projects and six major programs in which she has been involved.


Give the Unimportant Job to the Newbie


One of the first tasks given to Margaret Hamilton was to program an "Abort Solution" for an unmanned mission.

At the time, NASA thought an abort would never happen.

So they gave this "low priority" job to the new kid on the block - Margaret Hamilton.

As it turns out, an abort situation occurred and Hamilton's software was implemented.

She enjoyed some short-lived "office recognition".


Previous Success Ignored - Permission Not Granted


In spite of Margaret's previous "Abort Solution" success, she was not allowed to develop a software program that would have prevented a significant problem during the Apollo 8 mission.

In fact, it took NASA nine hours to fix the problem!

Discovering the Problem - A Day with Her Daughter


In the preparation stages for Apollo 11, Margaret took her 4 year-old daughter (Lauren) to NASA.

During a mission simulation, Lauren inadvertently pushed a button that started the pre-launch software program that crashed the whole program.

Thinking that an astronaut could very well do the same thing during the real mission, Hamilton requested time and resources to develop a fail-safe for that problem.

NASA believed that an astronaut would never do what Lauren had done (pushed a wrong button) and declined her request.

Well, guess what?

Hamilton's prediction was spot on.

An astronaut pushed the wrong button and caused a deletion of data that was necessary to get the astronauts back to the Earth!

The problem could have been prevented altogether if Margaret was given permission to work on a fail-safe program beforehand.

Needless to say, Hamilton's requests and recommendations were taken much more seriously after that!

Saving Apollo 11


In one of the critical moments of the Apollo 11 mission, the Apollo Guidance Computer together with the on-board flight software averted an abort of the landing on the Moon.

Three minutes before the Lunar lander reached the Moon's surface, several computer alarms were triggered.

The computer was overloaded with interrupts caused by incorrectly phased power supplied to the lander's rendezvous radar.

The program alarms indicated "executive overflows", meaning the guidance computer could not complete all of its tasks in real time and had to postpone some of them.

At the time, there was no priority assignments for executing software, so the system acted similar to present day websites during a DDoS attack.

If it wasn't for Hamilton's forethought, the astronauts would not have been made aware of the emergency in enough time to make a decision and execute appropriate measures.

Hamilton's creation of priority alarm displays interrupted the astronauts' normal displays to warn them that there was an emergency "giving the astronauts a go/no go decision (to land or not to land)".

A NASA computer engineer in mission control, Jack Garman, knew the meaning of the errors (from Hamilton's priority displays), instructed the astronauts to institute Hamilton's recommended procedures, and then shouted, "Go, go!"

And on they went.

Dr. Paul Curto, senior technologist who nominated Hamilton for a NASA Space Act Award, called Hamilton's work "the foundation for ultra-reliable software design."




In 2016, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama, the highest civilian honor in the United States.

Other Awards

In 1986, she received the Augusta Ada Lovelace Award by the Association for Women in Computing.

In 2003, she was given the NASA Exceptional Space Act Award for scientific and technical contributions.

In 2009, she received the Outstanding Alumni Award by Earlham College.

On April 28, 2017, she received the "Computer History Museum Fellow Award" that honors exceptional men and women whose ideas have changed the world.



See: "Margaret Hamilton - 2017 CHM Fellow"

By JaiChai

Thanks for stopping by.

Truly hope to see you again!


About the Author

Believing that school was too boring, he dropped out of High School early; only to earn an AA, BS and MBA in less than 4 years much later in life – while working full-time as a Navy/Marine Corps Medic.

In spite of a fear of heights and deep water, he performed high altitude, free-fall parachute jumps and hazardous diving ops in deep, open ocean water.

After 24 years of active duty, he retired in Asia.

Since then, he's been a full-time, single papa and actively pursuing his varied passions (Writing, Disruptive Technology, Computer Science and Cryptocurrency - plus more hobbies too boring or bizarre for most folk).

He lives on an island paradise with his teenage daughter, longtime girlfriend and three dogs.

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I'm a single papa actively enjoying my varied passions (e.g., Writing, Disruptive Technology, Cryptocurrency, plus more hobbies too bizarre for most folk). I live on an island paradise with my teenage daughter, longtime girlfriend and three dogs.

(IJCH) Life, People, and Philosophy
(IJCH) Life, People, and Philosophy

IJCH - Inside JaiChai's Head (Meaning: My Warped, Personal Opinions and Musings on Life, People and Philosophy)

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