Moonlight Tribute To Margaret Hamilton's Apollo Code
Written by Sue Gee   
Saturday, 20 July 2019

This week marks the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 moon landing and we have all been experiencing (again) watching Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin setting foot on the moon. Google not only provided us a Google Doodle, it also produced a massive portrait of Margaret Hamilton, in moonlight, to mark her role in landing mankind on the moon.


In the Google Doodle, Michael Collins, the third member of the Apollo 11 crew and the one who stayed in the command module in orbit around the moon. Telling his story of the journey to and around the moon and safe return to earth, Collins tells us:

It took around 400,000 people to land mankind on the moon, from engineers to computer programmer to the people who sewed air tight space suits. 


Google picked out one individual for special attention, using moonlight and mirrors, produced a portrait of Margaret Hamilton at the Ivanpah solar facility in the Mojave Desert. 


The striking, but ephemeral, image, which could be spotted from an altitude of almost 2 kilometers, is made up of 107,000 mirrors, which cover an area spanning 1.4-square miles. It shows not only Margaret Hamilton, in her twenties, but also the lunar lander that took the astronauts to the surface.

So why did Google choose to honor Hamilton?

According to President Barack Obama, who brought Hamilton to prominence in 2016 when he awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom:

“She symbolizes that generation of unsung women who helped send humankind into space.” 


But there is more behind the choice than simply being a woman and therefor "under-represented". As well as directing the Software Engineering Division at the MIT Instrumentation Lab, and being the lead developer for the Apollo flight software, she added error checking and error correction to the software used for the landing module, which proved to be crucial to the success of the mission.

As is a well know part of the Apollo 11 story, approximately three minutes prior to touchdown the software signalled a computer overload error that could have resulted in the mission being aborted in its final few seconds. Instead, as we know with hindsight, the decision was made to continue.

In an interview published this week, Hamilton explained:

We pieced together afterwards what had happened, which was that a radar switch was in the wrong position and it was taking up processing power. It quickly became clear the software was not only informing everyone that there was a hardware-related problem but was compensating for it – restarting and re-establishing the highest priority tasks. The error detection and recovery mechanisms had come to the rescue. It was a total relief when they landed – both that the astronauts were safe, and that the software worked perfectly.

As President Obama summed it up in 2016:

“Our astronauts didn’t have much time, but thankfully they had Margaret Hamilton.”



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Last Updated ( Saturday, 20 July 2019 )