Science

Apollo-era auction brings back memory of computer science pioneer

NASA
Margaret Hamilton, MIT computer scientist who oversaw development of Apollo flight software

It took a woman to put the first man on the moon.

In the 1960s, Massachusetts Institute of Technology computer scientist Margaret Hamilton was in charge of developing the Apollo flight software. Last week, technology that used the software, the Block II Apollo Guidance computer display and keyboard unit, went up for auction.

The device, one of about 75 manufactured, was obtained by RR Auction from a New Jersey collector who purchased it from a government surplus sale more than two decades ago.

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In many ways, the device, with its 19 keys and digital display, looks no more sophisticated than a modern thermostat. But to Hamilton, it evokes deep memories of the minutes before the Eagle landing module reached the moon’s surface on July 20, 1969.

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The software she designed overrode a command that had been put in manually because of incorrect instructions provided to the pilot.

RR Auction
Block II Apollo Guidance computer display and keyboard (DSKY) unit

“If the software override had not been active, preprogrammed, tested and simulated, the . . . landing might have been aborted” or crashed, according to NASA.

Today, computer science is a normal part of the college curriculum, but Hamilton was a pioneer in the discipline, credited with coining the term “software engineering.” She was also one of the few women in a field so male-dominated that spacecraft and technology deemed flight-worthy for human space travel were certified as “man-rated.”

Hamilton, 78 and living in Cambridge, found time to answer a few questions by e-mail. Her responses have been edited for length.

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Does seeing this piece of equipment up for sale bring back any memories?

A: Aside from my memories of working, in general, on the Apollo manned missions (especially during the excitement of Apollo 8 and Apollo 11), there are some specific memories that this piece of equipment brings back to me:

The many nights and weekends when I would bring my daughter to work during off-hour times when we were running hardware and software simulations to check out the on-board flight software we had been developing. My daughter loved to play astronaut by selecting various keys on the DSKY (this piece of equipment) to “help” me do testing.

What was it like to be a woman in engineering then?

A: It depended on who she was working for and what the culture was in a particular organization. Some things were more difficult for a woman then. Some are more difficult now. Some of the things that were acceptable back then could seem quaint or shocking when looking back. Things are still being done out of ignorance today, such as paying women lower salaries than men and relegating women most often to the lower positions in an organization. And if not, they have to fight harder than their male counterparts to be one of the exceptions.

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Were you always aware of yourself as one of the few women in the room?

A: At that time, I did not really think about it. I was so involved in what we were doing, technically, that I was oblivious to the fact that I was being outnumbered by men. In the case of the Apollo project my colleagues (mostly male) and I were friends and we worked side by side to solve challenging problems and meet critical deadlines. We concentrated on our work more than whether one was male or female.

In your opinion, what have been the most striking changes for women in science and engineering since then?

A: When discrimination against a woman exists today, it is usually more subtle than it would have been back then. That has its advantages and disadvantages.

What developments in science and engineering are you most excited about today?

A: Some of the more interesting developments are those having to do with issues concerning areas such as cybersecurity and secure systems of systems. Toward this end, the more we can mimic the thinking process, the more we will be successful in solving these problems. Recent developments in neural processing architectures can be used to help guide the development of a universal means to communicate and understand systems.

This is consistent with the goals for our own universal system language and its related developments.

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @carolynyjohnson.