Sign up for podcast updates and more!
Once, there was a girl who put a man on the Moon. Her name was Margaret Hamilton. When she was young, girls didn’t study computers. But Margaret was curious about space, and she was smart. Really smart. She never thought twice about being the only woman in the room. With her cool-headedness and brilliant programming skills, she was able to avert disaster and maneuver the first successful American moon landing, Apollo 11.
Once upon a time there was a girl who put a man on the moon. Her name was Margaret. <MUSIC>
When Margaret was a kid, her family would go on long drives across Michigan to visit her grandmother. They’d drive through lush forests, passing the occasional deer. And when she wasn’t playing games with her siblings, or singing to the radio with her mom — Margaret talked with her dad about all the questions she had rolling around in her head…
As they bounced along the two-lane highway in their Lincoln Zephyr, the long beams of the car’s headlights stretched out on the road in front of them. Margaret looked up at the night sky. And she wondered…
Why does the moon change shape every night? What would it take to build a bridge across Lake Michigan? How does gas make the car go? What happens when we die?
And Margaret’s dad wasn’t like other grown-ups. He didn’t shrug off her questions or pretend to know the answers. He welcomed her questions. He was a poet and philosopher at a small college, so he was as curious as Margaret!
Question after question, she was conquering something. Something bigger than the forest they were driving through. Something bigger than Michigan. Bigger than Planet Earth itself.
But she didn’t yet know where her questions would lead her…
I’m POORNA JAGANNATHAN. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.
A fairy tale podcast about the rebel women that inspire us.
This week: Margaret Hamilton.
<END THEME MUSIC>
A LOVE OF MATH
When Margaret started college in the 1950’s, there were no computer science classes at all – because computers were still a brand new thing!
So Margaret majored in math– and she studied philosophy and physics too. She didn’t realize it at the time, but she was learning about all of the things that make computers work. One day, she’d be a famous computer programmer.
But first, she had a lot of studying to do.
Now, Margaret was always one of the only girls in her math classes. But…the head of the entire math department? She was a woman.
Professor Florence Long had been teaching since 1914 – way before most girls even went to college let alone ran departments!
For the first time, Margaret saw a woman doing work that she could imagine doing too. So she made a plan to go to graduate school and become a math professor.
Margaret was a great student, but she was no wallflower. She liked being around people. And they seemed to like her too.
So much so that they voted her homecoming queen.
And at college, she met James Cox Hamilton, the man who would become her husband. The two spent hours and hours talking about math and science– he studied chemistry. They both loved studying and they planned to move to Boston for grad school after college.
In Margaret’s last year of college, the Soviet Union sent a satellite into Earth’s orbit… <SPUTNIK NEWSREEL>
ANNOUNCER: Today a new moon is in the sky, a 23-inch metal sphere placed in orbit by a Russian rocket…
<DROP NEWSREEL UNDER AND FADE OUT>
The satellite was called Sputnik 1. It awed the American people, but it also scared them…
The Soviet Union and the United States were already enemies. And Sputnik started a “space race” between the two countries that made Americans anxious. People wondered:
Will the Russians get to the moon first? What if they conquer space? What if they send a rocket to the U.S.?
So, in 1958, President Eisenhower created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. This was the beginning of NASA.
<DRIVING MUSIC CUE>
The U.S. government poured money into NASA’s research– anything they thought that could get them ahead, on earth… or beyond.
It was going to cost a lot to send astronauts to the moon. And there was no guarantee they’d make it there safely… But the clock was ticking and the U.S. was all in.
If they didn’t hurry, the Russians would beat them to it.
Margaret and James packed up everything they owned and set off for their new life in Boston…They were both headed to graduate school.
But looking out the window at the fields and houses as they drove across the country, Margaret found herself lost in thought…
With both of them in school at the same time, money would be tight.
So Margaret proposed a radical idea. What if they took turns? First, she’d support them while he got his degree. And then, it’d be her turn to go to graduate school while he worked.
A woman supporting a man was practically unheard of at the time! But James didn’t care, and Margaret was thrilled by the idea of working.
Every day, she’d scour the newspaper for jobs. And she found one at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – MIT. A professor in the meteorology department needed a research assistant who was a whiz at math. And he found one in Margaret.
Professor Lorenz was designing computer programs that could predict weather patterns.
It was Margaret’s first introduction to writing computer code and she was hooked!
With coding Margaret could take a question like, how far away is a thunderstorm? And she’d turn it into a mathematical language that the computer could understand.
The computers back then were huge, by the way. Margaret wrote the code by punching tiny holes in cards that were fed into the computers. It was tedious and time-consuming, but when it worked… it was incredible.
And Margaret was a natural.
Soon, her new skills landed her another job at MIT– one that would take her a step closer to space.
But first… she became a mom.
On November 10, 1959, Margaret gave birth to her one and only child. She named her Lauren.
Margaret was only 23 years old and she loved her job. She saw no reason why becoming a mother would change that.
But not everyone felt that way.
Less than two miles away, at Harvard, people had some very old-fashioned ideas about a woman’s place in the world..
James was studying at Harvard Law school and the students were almost entirely men. Once a year, at an annual event, the wives of these “Harvard law men” were expected to pour tea in a ceremony for their husbands and professors.
“No way,” said Margaret. She didn’t consider herself a “Harvard Law Wife.” Besides, she had more pressing things to do than pour tea.
<AUDIO OF GAGARIN NEWSREEL>
ANNOUNCER: Man had his first great success in space when the Russians pushed a man across the threshold. He was Yuri Gagarin, the astronaut the Russians lionized as the first to orbit the earth…
<DROP UNDER AND FADE OUT>
First a satellite, now… a man? In outer space? Russia was getting ahead.
Like Margaret, President Kennedy was disappointed. But he was determined too. So he gave a speech that was broadcast across the country.
<AUDIO OF JFK’S MOON SPEECH>
JFK: We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things…not because they are easy but because they are hard.
<DROP UNDER AND FADE OUT>
It was the greatest pep rally of all time. And Margaret wanted to be a part of it.
THE APOLLO PROGRAM / WORKING MOM
So when she heard that NASA was teaming up with a lab at MIT, she wasted no time. <MUSIC>
Soon, Margaret had two interviews for different jobs working on the NASA project. And she was offered both.
Margaret was psyched. But she didn’t want to disappoint anyone.
So she told them flip a coin to decide who’d hire her.
Either way, she was going to work for NASA.
<LONG TONE TRANSITION>
Margaret’s job was to write the navigation program that astronauts used to steer their spaceships.
And everything had to work just right. Even the tiniest typo could lead to a catastrophe for the Apollo team using these programs in space. She had to make sure the astronauts got to the moon and back safely.
Margaret and her team wrote so much code for NASA’s computers, that a print-out of it could reach the top of Margaret’s head. There’s a famous photo of her from back then. She’s standing next to a stack of the code they wrote. She’s wearing a mini dress and big glasses. She has long wavy hair. And she’s smiling.
She’s 33 years old.
Margaret was one of the only women working on the Apollo program, but she never felt like her co-workers treated her differently. They cared more about how fast she could write code than anything else.
But there was one way she was different from the rest.
Margaret was a mom.
With the President, the country and the whole world watching to see if the U.S. could get a man to the moon, Margaret had to work nights and weekends.
So she brought Lauren to the lab with her.
Sometimes the four-year-old would fall asleep on the floor of the office overlooking the Charles River. Other times Lauren would use the lab like a playground.
See, the engineers had to test everything they built in the lab so they knew it would work in space. They would run simulated flights over and over again. And they would sort of “play” at being astronauts.
Whenever Margaret added new code to the program or had to rewrite some of it, she’d test it out to make sure the program still worked.
Lauren would sit on the ground coloring as her mom typed out code on her computer. But then, when Margaret was ready to test the code, Lauren would stop to watch, transfixed as her mom flipped switches, turned dials, sometimes laid on her back and worked computers overhead. Just like an astronaut in a cramped spaceship.
This all looked like a game of make-believe and Lauren wanted to play too. Margaret didn’t mind, so she let her fiddle around with the flight simulator when she wasn’t using it. But one day… Lauren flipped a switch that the programmers never meant to be used during a flight. She’d accidentally started a pre-launch program when the simulator was mid flight!
This confused the computer and it crashed. In a big way.
Margaret ran to see what had happened– to her, this was a happy accident. It was exactly why they ran simulations! She thanked Lauren for calling her attention to this. Her little engineer helper!
Margaret went straight to her bosses. She told them she wanted to add code to make sure this would not happen in space. But the guys at NASA told her not to worry. After all, astronauts were trained never to make mistakes.
But it turns out, they were wrong.
On December 21, 1968, NASA sent three astronauts on the Apollo 8 mission to orbit the moon. And on the fifth day of the mission, when the ship was headed back towards earth, an astronaut
did exactly what Lauren had done. He accidentally started a pre-launch program while the ship was still in space!
This wiped out the computer’s navigation data. And without it, the astronauts couldn’t get home…
After nine hours of searching frantically for a solution, Margaret and the rest of the team back at MIT programmed a way to guide the astronauts back to earth.
She saved the day. But she was annoyed that NASA hadn’t believed her. And Margaret wanted to make sure this never happened again.
<APOLLO 11 COUNTDOWN AUDIO AND MUSIC>
Seven months later, on July 16th, 1969, three astronauts boarded the Apollo 11 spaceship and launched into Earth’s orbit.
530 million people watched them take off.
<BRING BACK UP COUNTDOWN FOR LIFTOFF>
This was the mission Margaret and the rest of the team had been working towards. NASA had installed a camera on board so the astronauts could send pictures back to earth for a live TV broadcast.
Whether they succeeded or failed, the world was watching.
<BROADCAST FROM APOLLO 11 PRIOR TO LUNAR LANDING>
Just minutes before Apollo 11 reached the moon’s surface, the computer started spitting out frantic error messages.
The mission was in danger.
Luckily, Margaret had anticipated this kind of problem. And this time, her bosses had listened. She’d written code that told the computer to ignore the error messages and focus on the highest-priority task – in this case, landing on the moon!
So instead of aborting the mission, Apollo 11 landed safely…
<AUDIO OF “ONE SMALL STEP…”>
All because of Margaret.
<MUSIC SWELLS AND CONTINUES FOR A FEW SECONDS BEFORE ENDING>