Margaret Hamilton, Lead Software Engineer of the Apollo Project, Stands Next to Her Code That Took Us to the Moon (1969)

Pho­to cour­tesy of MIT Muse­um

When I first read news of the now-infa­mous Google memo writer who claimed with a straight face that women are bio­log­i­cal­ly unsuit­ed to work in sci­ence and tech, I near­ly choked on my cere­al. A dozen exam­ples instant­ly crowd­ed to mind of women who have pio­neered the very basis of our cur­rent tech­nol­o­gy while oper­at­ing at an extreme dis­ad­van­tage in a cul­ture that explic­it­ly believed they shouldn’t be there, this shouldn’t be hap­pen­ing, women shouldn’t be able to do a “man’s job!”

The memo, as Megan Molteni and Adam Rogers write at Wired, “is a species of dis­course pecu­liar to polit­i­cal­ly polar­ized times: cher­ry-pick­ing sci­en­tif­ic evi­dence to sup­port a pre-exist­ing point of view.” Its spe­cious evo­lu­tion­ary psy­chol­o­gy pre­tends to objec­tiv­i­ty even as it ignores real­i­ty. As Mul­der would say, the truth is out there, if you care to look, and you don’t need to dig through clas­si­fied FBI files. Just, well, Google it. No, not the pseu­do­science, but the careers of women in STEM with­out whom we might not have such a thing as Google.

Women like Mar­garet Hamil­ton, who, begin­ning in 1961, helped NASA “devel­op the Apol­lo program’s guid­ance sys­tem” that took U.S. astro­nauts to the moon, as Maia Wein­stock reports at MIT News. “For her work dur­ing this peri­od, Hamil­ton has been cred­it­ed with pop­u­lar­iz­ing the con­cept of soft­ware engi­neer­ing.” Robert McMil­lan put it best in a 2015 pro­file of Hamil­ton:

It might sur­prise today’s soft­ware mak­ers that one of the found­ing fathers of their boys’ club was, in fact, a mother—and that should give them pause as they con­sid­er why the gen­der inequal­i­ty of the Mad Men era per­sists to this day.

Hamil­ton was indeed a moth­er in her twen­ties with a degree in math­e­mat­ics, work­ing as a pro­gram­mer at MIT and sup­port­ing her hus­band through Har­vard Law, after which she planned to go to grad­u­ate school. “But the Apol­lo space pro­gram came along” and con­tract­ed with NASA to ful­fill John F. Kennedy’s famous promise made that same year to land on the moon before the decade’s end—and before the Sovi­ets did. NASA accom­plished that goal thanks to Hamil­ton and her team.

Pho­to cour­tesy of MIT Muse­um

Like many women cru­cial to the U.S. space pro­gram (many dou­bly mar­gin­al­ized by race and gen­der), Hamil­ton might have been lost to pub­lic con­scious­ness were it not for a pop­u­lar redis­cov­ery. “In recent years,” notes Wein­stock, “a strik­ing pho­to of Hamil­ton and her team’s Apol­lo code has made the rounds on social media.” You can see that pho­to at the top of the post, tak­en in 1969 by a pho­tog­ra­ph­er for the MIT Instru­men­ta­tion Lab­o­ra­to­ry. Used to pro­mote the lab’s work on Apol­lo, the orig­i­nal cap­tion read, in part, “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.”

As Hank Green tells it in his con­densed his­to­ry above, Hamil­ton “rose through the ranks to become head of the Apol­lo Soft­ware devel­op­ment team.” Her focus on errors—how to pre­vent them and course cor­rect when they arise—“saved Apol­lo 11 from hav­ing to abort the mis­sion” of land­ing Neil Arm­strong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon’s sur­face. McMil­lan explains that “as Hamil­ton and her col­leagues were pro­gram­ming the Apol­lo space­craft, they were also hatch­ing what would become a $400 bil­lion indus­try.” At Futur­ism, you can read a fas­ci­nat­ing inter­view with Hamil­ton, in which she describes how she first learned to code, what her work for NASA was like, and what exact­ly was in those books stacked as high as she was tall. As a woman, she may have been an out­lier in her field, but that fact is much bet­ter explained by the Occam’s razor of prej­u­dice than by any­thing hav­ing to do with evo­lu­tion­ary deter­min­ism.

Note: You can now find Hamil­ton’s code on Github.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How 1940s Film Star Hedy Lamarr Helped Invent the Tech­nol­o­gy Behind Wi-Fi & Blue­tooth Dur­ing WWII

Meet Grace Hop­per, the Pio­neer­ing Com­put­er Sci­en­tist Who Helped Invent COBOL and Build the His­toric Mark I Com­put­er (1906–1992)

How Ada Lovelace, Daugh­ter of Lord Byron, Wrote the First Com­put­er Pro­gram in 1842–a Cen­tu­ry Before the First Com­put­er

NASA Puts Its Soft­ware Online & Makes It Free to Down­load

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (9)
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  • Randy says:

    “the now-infa­mous Google memo writer who claimed with a straight face that women are bio­log­i­cal­ly unsuit­ed to work in sci­ence and tech”

    That is a lie. He said no such thing. Per­haps you might read his doc­u­ment. Or would that be too much work to do before defam­ing some­one?

    You can get to the actu­al doc­u­ment via Wikipedia:

  • Randy says:

    Maybe my inclu­sion of a link caused my com­ment not to be dis­played.

    You said: “the now-infa­mous Google memo writer who claimed with a straight face that women are bio­log­i­cal­ly unsuit­ed to work in sci­ence and tech”

    And this is a lie. Any­one can read the doc­u­ment for them­selves. Go to Wikipedia for “Google’s Ide­o­log­i­cal Echo Cham­ber” and scroll to the bot­tom for the link to the actu­al text.

    As to cher­ry-pick­ing, you can also look to the response to the paper from sci­en­tists, rather than ide­o­logues.

  • Randy says:

    Hank Green? Isn’t that the guy whose Vid­Con event apol­o­gized to a priv­i­leged abuser, vio­lat­ing its own rules, for ver­bal­ly attack­ing and defam­ing an audi­ence mem­ber, from the stage, out of nowhere?

  • Hanoch says:

    I did not read the entire memo, but saw many quotes from, and sum­maries of, it. I did not see any­thing indi­cat­ing that the “infa­mous” (alleged­ly) “Google memo writer” assert­ed “that women are bio­log­i­cal­ly unsuit­ed to work in sci­ence and tech.” The writer seemed to be sug­gest­ing that men and women, as a group (not as indi­vid­u­als), dif­fer in cer­tain ways, includ­ing their psy­cho­log­i­cal make-up. Unless you are an ide­o­logue of some sort, that is hard­ly con­tro­ver­sial. The memo writer sug­gest­ed that one way in which men and women may dif­fer (again, as a group, not as indi­vid­u­als) is in their respec­tive incli­na­tions to enter into sci­en­tif­ic and/or tech­no­log­i­cal fields of study/occupation. I don’t know if that is accu­rate, but it is cer­tain­ly sus­cep­ti­ble to dis­cov­ery through exist­ing data. It is fine to debate issues, but it does no good to mis­rep­re­sent things.

  • REMY says:

    “Stands Next to Her Code That Took Us to the Moon”…Well, i’m not con­viced by that. I would say that the size of the doc­u­men­ta­tion would occu­py some MEGA octet in a com­put­er. The mem­o­ry of the Appol­lo com­put­er is around 40 K Octet. [ 2048 words RAM (mag­net­ic core mem­o­ry), 36,864 words ROM (core rope mem­o­ry) ]
    I would say It’s the doc­u­men­ta­tion, Spec­i­fi­ca­tion of the com­put­er pro­gram.

  • Sirius says:

    Exact­ly so, and I hope it’s an ignit­ing move from the open cul­ture, just to start a dis­cus­sion. Lazi­ness, sper­fi­cial­li­aty — killers of mean­ing… 1984 is here

  • Merin says:

    Bro, have you read that memo your­self? Check out its state­ment on p. 3: “Men and women bio­log­i­cal­ly dif­fer in many ways.…these dif­fer­ences may explain why we don’t see equal rep­re­sen­ta­tion of women in tech and lead­er­ship.”

    Sor­ry not sor­ry to cor­rect you: the memo writer did indeed say this.

  • Sirius says:

    lol, exact­ly, “bro”, do you even read?
    the dif­fer­ences ARE there

  • Steve Reilly says:

    It’s a shame Josh has­n’t respond­ed to the com­ments on her or amend­ed the arti­cle and is still slan­der­ing a man. This used to be a decent site.

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