The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the highest honor a civilian can receive, and 21 individuals were awarded the Medal in a White House ceremony earlier this week. Among the recipients was Margaret Hamilton, an 80 year-old woman whose contributions to the US space program have finally been recognized, fifty years after her software enabled the lunar lander to reach the surface of the mission during the famous Apollo 11 mission.
Hamilton by no means worked alone on the project, of course, but her work single-handedly allowed the moon landing to happen. Moment before the landing was slated to occur, alarms went off that would have otherwise caused NASA to abort the attempt. Hamilton’s hand-written multi-volume code had “taught” the computer what to do in the event it was overburdened with tasks, essentially telling it how to prioritize its workload.
Hamilton’s lack of recognition over the years is certainly not abnormal, especially for minority groups who helped power the space race. A 2016 film based on the true story of African-American women who were already working for NASA as mathematicians in mission critical roles releases on Christmas Day.
The conundrum of not recognizing the contributions of minorities in high-tech fields is difficult. While it robs the next generation of engineers, mathematicians, and computer scientists of role models, the problem isn’t limited to those groups. After all, the crew of the Apollo 11 mission became household names after their landing, but how many of the behind-the-scenes engineers–of any ethnicity or gender–were truly brought into the spotlight? Until we value the contributions of the STEM forefathers and foremothers as well as those at work today, it will continue to take 50 years to recognize their achievements.
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