SILICON VALLEY, CA. – It was long ago – Dec. 21, 1968, to be exact. On that notable date in history, the Apollo 8 mission blasted off, seeking to become the first manned spacecraft to orbit the moon and successfully return to Earth. Courageous men were heading for the heavens.
Behind them, far away from the limelight defining those heady times, stood a brilliant, insightful mother who helped change the future of humanity. Her name is Margaret Hamilton.
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When it comes to women working in the field of high technology, few of the fairer sex can compete with this truly maverick lady. Hamilton (more or less) put mankind on the moon (she had plenty of help) and, through that process, also managed to invent what we know today as "software." It's hard to believe that your iPhone 6 has enough computing power to run 120 million – yes, million – Apollo lunar missions simultaneously. Read all about that right here.
Indeed, this unique woman stood as a giant amongst America's smartest men. Of course, 1968 was lightyears before "the elites" in Silicon Valley spoke about "diversity" and "women in tech." Only in retrospect can we appreciate her pioneering spirit and achievements. There was no budget for "software" within the Apollo program. The term "debugging" came about when a moth flew into one of the computers. (Yes, this actually is how it came into our lexicon.)
In terms of ancillary cultural products, in 1968, Warwick released her hit song, "Do you know the way to San Jose?" In reality, the title was succinct because back then, San Jose was still something of a backwater. "Silicon Valley" as we know it today had yet to emerge. Dionne Warwick didn't even want to record the song. She felt it was "silly." She was talked into doing so, and subsequently won a Grammy Award.
They were troubled times. The Vietnam War was raging. President Richard Nixon was pondering another type of launch beyond Apollo 8 – his launch of the DEA, OSHA and EPA. This troika constitutes a bureaucratic legacy the de facto postmodern occupants of the White House would likely swoon over. As everyone knows, it was a time of great social change and discontent. There was Charles Manson and the rise of the Church of Satan in San Francisco. Drugs were becoming vogue.
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In fact, within a few years, on June 12, 1970, Pittsburgh Pirates' pitcher Dock Ellis would throw a no-hitter against San Diego – while high on LSD. You can watch the brilliant documentary on that feat here. One might argue about which was the greater achievement – establishing the DEA or pitching a no-hitter on LSD. There was Beatlemania and the Rolling Stones. Events at Altamont showed America's youth to be out of control.
The assassinations of JFK, MLK and RFK roiled the nation, dashing the hopes and dreams of their millions of supporters. MLK's salient mantra of his dream that people would someday be "judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character" still resonates today, although even with affirmative-action and quotas, there still aren't many African-Americans working in high technology, or even in the construction trades around Silicon Valley. As is the case with the NBA and the NHL, people still tend to self-segregate.
And now the "new segregation" has unleashed an intense, relentless and comprehensive cultural war of hatred against white men, Christians and Southerners. That said, it's plainly evident that many blacks and Mexicans don't get along, Islamists don't like homosexuals, and other groups of various racial, ethnic and cultural origins embody a sense of entitlement and hatred for those "not like them" that we saw in the WASPS of the 1920s. It's hard to believe some white people actually spit on Jackie Robinson, who was a clean-cut Christian, didn't take drugs and encouraged other black Americans to fight in the Vietnam War. Now everything has turned upside-down. There's more hatred than before, and America is more divided than ever.
In 1968, some people saw the world as bright and limitless. Others saw it as a few ticks away from nuclear Armageddon. The free love and LSD of Woodstock in upstate New York was still to come. The Woodstock 30-year reunion in 1999 ("The Summer of Corporate Love") saw rape and violence we did not witness in 1969, showing us the hippies weren't so bad after all.
That said, reaching for the moon, and "having Christmas at the moon" in 1968 should have been a moment to unite all races, creeds and peoples on Earth. The astronauts of Apollo 8 were told that in all of human history, no single voice had ever anticipated a larger audience than their Christmas Eve broadcast. Read about it here.
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The Apollo lunar missions, coming as they did during the height of the Cold War, took on a special significance. The Soviets had launched Sputnik into space back in 1957. The Russians had also put a man into outer space before the Americans. The U.S. and the Soviets were taking turns launching dogs and monkeys into orbit. Who would be the first to the moon? The BBC boldly addresses that question here.
One giant leap for mankind
Behind Apollo 8, and other missions such as Apollo 11, stood the aforementioned Margaret Hamilton. As such, it should come as no surprise that on Nov. 22, 2016, Hamilton was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama for her work on the Apollo mission. Watch the ceremony here. Hamilton was joined by Ellen of TV fame and NBA great Michael Jordan. This is the highest civilian honor that can be granted in the United States. It was created by JFK in 1963. If you recall, JFK was the man who wanted to put a man on the moon – this was long before Obama wanted to put a man in the women's restroom. (People living in Thailand can tell you Obama's dream is a "first" they achieved many decades ago.)
For the purposes of this column, we will focus on Hamilton's roles with Apollo 8 and Apollo 11. To begin, as time has its way with us all, we now know that the Apollo 11 moon landing would have been aborted if it wasn't for her software.
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The exact tale of that little-known account in Hamilton's own words goes as follows:
"Referring … to Apollo 11 and the 1201/1202 alarms during landing … Due to an error in the checklist manual, the rendezvous radar switch was placed in the wrong position. This caused it to send erroneous signals to the computer. The result was that the computer was being asked to perform all of its normal functions for landing while receiving an extra load of spurious data which used up 15% percent of its time.
"The computer (or rather the software in it) was smart enough to recognize that it was being asked to perform more tasks than it should be performing. It then sent out an alarm, which meant to the astronaut, 'I'm overloaded with more tasks than I should be doing at this time and I'm going to keep only the more important tasks; i.e., the ones needed for landing.' … Actually, the computer was programmed to do more than recognize error conditions. A complete set of recovery programs was incorporated into the software. The software's action, in this case, was to eliminate lower priority tasks and re-establish the more important ones. … If the computer hadn't recognized this problem and taken recovery action, I doubt if Apollo 11 would have been the successful moon landing it was."
The former high-school French and math teacher began her software engineering career as a weather forecaster. Born in Indiana, she graduated with a degree in math from the University of Michigan. She was able to get programs to work that no one else could – like air defense systems protecting the United States from a Soviet attack. (By "no one else," we mean "no other man.") She even printed out the answers in Greek and Latin. Because of this particular work, she caught the attention of MIT and NASA.
According to Wired.com:
"Margaret Hamilton wasn't supposed to invent the modern concept of software and land men on the moon. It was 1960, not a time when women were encouraged to seek out high-powered technical work. Hamilton, a 24-year-old had gotten a job as a programmer at MIT, and the plan was for her to support her husband through his three-year stint at Harvard Law. After that, it would be her turn – she wanted a graduate degree in math. But the Apollo space program came along. And Hamilton stayed in the lab to lead an epic feat of engineering that would help change the future of what was humanly – and digitally – possible.
"As a working mother in the 1960s, Hamilton was unusual; but as a spaceship programmer, Hamilton was positively radical. Hamilton would bring her daughter Lauren by the lab on weekends and evenings. While 4-year-old Lauren slept on the floor of the office overlooking the Charles River, her mother programmed away, creating routines that would ultimately be added to the Apollo's command module computer."
She loved her job – it was a job almost as strange as the idea of men walking on the surface of the moon. But Hamilton was amazing at coding, before anyone knew was coding was. She was a geek before anyone knew that the geek (rather than the meek) would inherit the Earth. It was a man's world, and as such women had extra hurdles to climb. It was not unlike the TV show "Mad Men."
"People used to say to me, 'How can you leave your daughter? How can you do this?'" Hamilton remembers. Concerning the idea of putting a man on the moon before the end of the decade, JFK had said, "We do these things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard." Hamilton took up that challenge as a working mother.
Says Hamilton, "When I first got into it, nobody knew what it was that we were doing. It was like the Wild West."
NASA had approached MIT about working on the Apollo computers. According to Wired.com, "She and her colleagues were inventing core ideas in computer programming as they wrote the code for the world's first portable computer. She became an expert in systems programming and won important technical arguments. This was a decade before Microsoft and nearly 50 years before Marc Andreessen would observe that software is, in fact, 'eating the world.' The world didn't think much at all about software back in the early Apollo days. The original document laying out the engineering requirements of the Apollo mission didn't even mention the word 'software,' MIT aeronautics professor David Mindell writes in his book 'Digital Apollo.' 'Software was not included in the schedule, and it was not included in the budget.'"
By 1965, Hamilton had become an integral part of the Apollo mission. She was tasked with writing the code for the onboard flight software. Now the entire mission was depending on her. The pressure was incredible. One story of note details how she sped back to her laboratory after a late-night party when she realized there was an error in the code she was writing. Hamilton says, "I was always imagining headlines in the newspapers, and they would point back to how it happened, and it would point back to me."
Three years later, 399 other people had joined Hamilton in working on the Apollo software. The Soviet Union did not have Margaret Hamilton. The U.S. did have Werner van Braun, the ex-Nazi rocket scientist. The Soviets had their own experts to be sure. As the script read in the film, "The Right Stuff," "Our Germans [the Nazi scientists the Americas brought back to the U.S. via "Operation Paper Clip"] are better than their [the Germans the Soviets captured in Berlin at the end of World War II] Germans." Hamilton and the "Apollo 400" were about to unleash a $400 billion industry that would change the world forever.
Hitler had automated the Holocaust in Europe with Hollerith punch card technology. The New York Times explains this very strange, very creepy story here. IBM had to pay reparations and fines because of this several decades later. The Atlantic explains part of the story here. What is not explained is that the Nazi experiments on innocent Jews carried out in pressure chambers were meant to gather data on high-altitude flying. The Americans and the Soviets were able to make a giant leap into outer space because of the innocent blood that was spilled during the Holocaust. And Werner van Braun actually became something of a celebrity in the United States. Handsome and blonde and well-spoken, he was the father of the Apollo lunar program.
It's hard to believe, but Hamilton was also punching holes in stacks of cards, "which would be processed overnight in batches on a giant Honeywell mainframe computer that simulated the Apollo lander's work. We had to simulate everything before it flew."
Says Wired, "Once the code was solid, it would be shipped off to a nearby Raytheon facility where a group of women, expert seamstresses known to the Apollo program as the 'Little Old Ladies,' threaded copper wires through magnetic rings (a wire going through a core was a 1; a wire going around the core was a 0). Forget about RAM or disk drives; on Apollo, memory was literally hardwired and very nearly indestructible.
The system stored more than 12,000 "words" in its permanent memory – the copper "ropes" threaded by the Raytheon workers – and had 1,024 words in its temporary, erasable memory. (What's interesting is that today one Google search uses the same computing power of the entire Apollo space mission both in outer space and on the ground.)
"Apollo flights carried two near-identical machines: one used in the lunar module – the Eagle that landed on the moon – and the other for the command module that carried the astronauts to and from Earth. These 70-pound Apollo computers were portable computers unlike any other. Conceived by MIT engineers such as Hal Laning and Hamilton's boss, Dick Batton, it was one of the first important computers to use integrated circuits rather than transistors. … It was the first computerized onboard navigation system designed to be operated by humans but with 'fly-by-wire' autopilot technology – precursor to the computerized navigation systems that are now standard on jetliners."
As for her invention of software, Hamilton says:
"Software during the early days of this project was treated like a stepchild and not taken as seriously as other engineering disciplines, such as hardware engineering; and it was regarded as an art and as magic, not a science. I had always believed that both art and science were involved in its creation, but at that time most thought otherwise. Knowing this, I fought to bring the software legitimacy so that it (and those building it) would be given its due respect and thus I began to use the term 'software engineering' to distinguish it from hardware and other kinds of engineering; yet, treat each type of engineering as part of the overall systems engineering process. When I first started using this phrase, it was considered to be quite amusing. It was an ongoing joke for a long time. They liked to kid me about my radical ideas. Software eventually and necessarily gained the same respect as any other discipline."
How little Lauren saved the Apollo astronauts
The most amazing and the most beautiful part of this whole story reaches its apex regarding how Lauren, even as a very little girl, "saved" the Apollo 8 astronauts from being lost in space.
According to the account:
"One day, Lauren was playing with the MIT command module simulator's display-and-keyboard unit, nicknamed the DSKY (dis-key). As she toyed with the keyboard, an error message popped up. Lauren had crashed the simulator by somehow launching a prelaunch program called P01 while the simulator was in midflight. There was no reason an astronaut would ever do this, but nonetheless, Hamilton wanted to add code to prevent the crash. That idea was overruled by NASA. 'We had been told many times that astronauts would not make any mistakes,' she says. 'They were trained to be perfect.' So instead, Hamilton created a program note – an add-on to the program's documentation that would be available to NASA engineers and the astronauts: 'Do not select P01 during flight,' it said. Hamilton wanted to add error-checking code to the Apollo system that would prevent this from messing up the systems. But that seemed excessive to her higher-ups. Everyone said 'that would never happen,'" Hamilton remembers.
"But it did. Right around Christmas 1968 – five days into the historic Apollo 8 flight, which brought astronauts to the moon for the first-ever manned orbit – astronaut Jim Lovell inadvertently selected P01 during flight. Hamilton was in the second-floor conference room at the Instrumentation Laboratory when the call came in from Houston. Launching the P01 program had wiped out all the navigation data Lovell had been collecting. That was a problem. Without that data, the Apollo computer wouldn't be able to figure out how to get the astronauts home. Hamilton and the MIT coders needed to come up with a fix, and it needed to be perfect. After spending nine hours pouring through the eight-inch-thick program listing on the table in front of them, they had a plan. Houston would upload new navigational data. Everything was going to be OK. Thanks to Hamilton – and Lauren – the Apollo astronauts came home.
Hamilton went on to found and lead multiple software companies. She worked on Skylab and the space shuttle. Today, her company, Hamilton Technologies, is just a few blocks away from MIT, where her career began – the hub of the code revolution that's still looking up at the stars.
The lessons and morals of this story are almost biblical. Lauren wasn't shoved off and out of the picture. Because her mother brought her to work, Lauren was there to make the P01 error. Because of that, her mother had "coded in" the warning for the astronauts to follow. It was Mommy who believed that within the context of the exhaustion and stress and fatigue of outer space, something could go wrong, even to the very best of men like Jim Lovell. (Lovell was played in the film "Apollo 13" by actor Tom Hanks, in one of his greatest roles.)
Hundreds of comments about Ms. Hamilton and her maverick work can be read here. It is a special apocrypha that should not be missed. The Hamilton Technologies website can be found here. There is a PDF available for downloading entitled, "Universal Systems Language: Lessons Learned from Apollo." This paper should be deconstructed by those interested in science, software development and the history of computer science. Her 1973 book can be investigated here.
The greatest part of this whole complex story with so many moving parts is that God works in mysterious ways. There is no substitute for a mother's love. God can use children as a part of His plan. Prayer works. Not a sparrow falls that God does not know – how much more valuable are you? As we celebrate Christmas this year, let us remember the miracle of little Lauren and Apollo 8.