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Margaret Hamilton, Software Programmer Who Got Apollo 11 on the Moon, Awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom

You’ve probably seen this photo before: Margaret Hamilton standing next to the books that contain the code she led a team in creating, which eventually landed Apollo 11 on the Moon safely. What’s disappointing is that this photo has only been making the rounds in recent years, as the unsung contributions of women to the history of NASA’s space program have finally started getting the attention they deserve. Now, Margaret Hamilton has been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for for her (pun incoming!) stellar achievements.

At the White House last night, President Obama awarded the medal to Hamilton, now 80 years old, not only for her contribution to Apollo 11, but for a career in software programming that spans fifty years.

According to The Boston Globe, Obama told the story of Apollo 11’s landing, and that three minutes before it was supposed to touch down on the Moon, an alarm sounded. Hamilton designed the software to sound an alarm if the computer’s processor became overloaded as well as to prioritize tasks if that warning rang, so everyone involved in the flight could focus on the most important. So, when the alarm sounded during Apollo 11’s flight signalling a radar hardware switch that was in the wrong position, they didn’t have to stop everything and abort the mission. They were able to re-prioritize tasks and get the problem resolved.

“Our astronauts didn’t have much time, but thankfully they had Margaret Hamilton,” President Obama said. “Margaret led the team that created the on-board flight software that allowed the Eagle to land safely. [She] symbolizes that generation of unsung women who helped send humankind into space. Her software architecture echoes in countless technologies today, and her example speaks of the American spirit of discovery that exists in every little girl and little boy who know that somehow to look beyond the heavens is to look deep within ourselves and to figure out just what is possible.”

Indeed. For Hamilton, what was possible after her work on Apollo 11 was becoming the head of the Software Engineering Division at MIT’s Instrumentation Laboratory, through its spinoff into Draper Laboratory, then starting her own company in the mid-1970s. And now, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

However, Hamilton wasn’t the only female programmer honored last night! Grace Hopper, known as “the First Lady of Software,” was honored posthumously. Other recipients include Bill and Melinda Gates, who were honored not for Gates’ achievements in the tech world, but for their philanthropic efforts through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Ellen DeGeneres was awarded the medal for her work in comedy and as an advocate for equality, and Lorne Michaels was awarded the medal for creating a little thing called Saturday Night Live. Head on over to Time for a full list of medal recipients along with their biographies.

Now, when exactly can I buy advance tickets for Hidden Figures?

(featured image via Draper Laboratory)

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