'Margaret and the Moon' Tells the Lesser-Known Story of a Pioneering NASA Computer Scientist

Nov 30, 2017

A few weeks ago, Lake Effect introduced you to Kathy Sullivan, a pioneer among women astronauts.  Sullivan flew on three Space Shuttle missions and was the first woman to walk in space. She was in town earlier this year to talk about her book for young readers, To the Stars! The First American Woman to Walk in Space.

But before Kathy Sullivan walked in space, another pioneering woman helped ensure that there was a successful space program. Margaret Hamilton’s story had gone largely unnoticed for decades until relatively recently. Like with Sullivan, a new children’s book tells Hamilton’s inspirational story. Margaret and the Moon is written by Madison author Dean Robbins and illustrated by Lucy Knisley.

Margaret Hamilton standing next to the navigation software that she and her MIT team produced for the Apollo Project.
Credit Draper Labratory / Wikimedia Commons

Hamilton was a pioneering computer scientist at NASA and rose to director of software engineering for the Apollo 11 project.

She helped create the code that successfully got astronauts to the moon for the first time. Anticipating human error, Hamilton created a computer program that would ignore a human mistake (which happened) and focus the equipment on landing on the moon safely.

This code made her a legend at NASA, according to Robbins.

He says he wasn't familiar with Hamilton's story until he came across a photograph of Hamilton three years ago (pictured left).

"The unusual thing was that she was standing next to a huge stack of paper that went all the way over her head, and you read the caption...and at that point you realize this was no ordinary woman," says Robbins. "This was a computer genius who helped astronauts get all the way to the moon for the first time using the extremely limited technology of that era."

Robbins notes that people don't often associate women working for NASA in the 1960s, but he found that people were "delighted, amazed, and ready for an indomitable female [scientist's story]."

An illustration by Lucy Knisley.
Credit deanrobbins.net

Even today, in an era where information is so accessible, Robbins couldn't find any previously published work about Hamilton's life and work. "When I discovered Margaret's photo, she was a very obscure figure and her signature achievement had happened in the late '60s and early '70s, and she pretty much lived in obscurity since then."

Robbins was able to track down Margaret Hamilton and discuss her work and her life's story. "I was a little worried that she wouldn't be interested in talking to me," he admits. "Margaret is not a fame seeker, but a very serious scientist with loads of integrity. Lucky for me, she has great-grandchildren who are elementary school age and she said that she was kind of tickled by the thought of a book that she could read to her great-grandkids about her life."

Dean Robbins is a Wisconsin children’s book author - his titles include Two Friends: Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass, Miss Paul and the President, and his latest, Margaret and the Moon.