CAMBRIDGE, MA – Just before the Apollo 11 astronauts landed on the Moon, the onboard flight computer experienced an overflow of orders that triggered alarms throughout the landing module. The computer was unable to complete all of its tasks in real time and warned the astronauts that it was going to eliminate lower priority tasks and execute the more important ones so that they could land safely.
The Computer History Museum honored Margaret Hamilton, who helped NASA address this challenge and led the team that created the on-board flight software that allowed the Eagle to land safely, by naming her a Fellow during a recent ceremony in Mountain View, Calif.
During the time of the Apollo space missions, Hamilton led the team that created the on-board flight software for NASA’s Apollo command modules and lunar modules. She was in charge of the Apollo (and Skylab) on-board flight software effort while also serving as Director of the Software Engineering Division at MIT’s Instrumentation Laboratory and continued there when it became The Charles Stark Draper Laboratory in 1970. Now known as Draper, the organization was spun out of MIT in 1973.
During this time, Hamilton wanted to give the software “legitimacy,” just like with other engineering disciplines, so that it (and those building it) would be given its due respect; and, as a result she made up the term “software engineering” to distinguish it from other kinds of engineering.
With her Priority Displays error detection and recovery programs, she created new man in the loop concepts that provided the ability for the on-board flight software to communicate asynchronously in real-time with the astronaut within a distributed system of systems environment. This allowed the software (running in parallel with the astronauts) to interrupt the astronauts and replace their normal displays with priority displays; in order to warn them in case of an emergency during an Apollo mission. Such was the case during the Apollo 11 landing.
She culminated the Apollo effort by leading her team in performing an empirical analysis based on lessons learned from the development of the Apollo on-board flight software. These lessons were formalized into a theory for systems and software, which serves as the origin and much of the foundation of Hamilton’s Universal Systems Language (USL).
Hamilton is the founder and CEO of Hamilton Technologies, Inc. She is responsible for the development of the Universal Systems Language (USL) together with its integrated systems-to-software “Development Before the Fact” preventative life cycle and its automation, the 001 Tool Suite; all based on her mathematical theory of control for systems and software.
According to a Computer History Museum statement, the Fellow Awards honor “distinguished technology leaders who have forever changed the world with their accomplishments and recognize their role in the advancement of computing history.” The CHM cited Hamilton for her leadership and work on software for DOD and NASA’s Apollo space missions and for fundamental contributions to software engineering.
Hamilton received the NASA Exceptional Space Act Award (2003) and the Presidential Medal of Freedom awarded by Barack Obama (2016).
Building on its long history, Draper continues to design and develop the world’s most accurate and reliable guidance, navigation and control systems. Draper’s achievements include the design and development of guidance systems that guided the Apollo astronauts to the Moon and back safely to Earth, every time. Draper has contributed to the development of inertial sensors, software and other systems for the GN&C of commercial and military aircraft, submarines, strategic and tactical missiles, spacecraft and unmanned vehicles. Draper continues to be a key member in programs that include the International Space Station, Dream Chaser, NASA’s Orion vehicle for deep space exploration and NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx).