The Apollo moon landing: One giant leap for software engineering

Saturday 20 July marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Lunar Module landing on the surface of the moon. Six hours later Neil Armstrong would captivate people across the world by becoming the first person to walk on the moon.

As well as being one of the most significant achievements in human history - the moon landing represented a landmark moment in the history of software engineering.

Computer programming played an essential role in NASA successfully accomplishing its mission.

Margaret Hamilton was one of NASA’s lead computer programmers, who famously coined the term ‘software engineers’ to recognise the crucial role her team played alongside aeronautical engineers.

More than 400 programmers worked on Apollo’s software working in conditions that can only be described as primitive by today’s standards - with access to just 72 kilobytes of computer memory. Programmers were required to feed paper punch cards into a giant Honeywell mainframe computer that simulated Apollo’s audacious and pioneering journey.

Much has changed since then, not the least of which the incredible rise of software in transforming nearly every aspect of life on earth.

We spoke to some of our own fearless and passionate software engineers to discover what the anniversary of the moon landing means to them.

Margaret Hamilton was one of NASA’s lead computer programmers, who famously coined the term ‘software engineers’ to recognise her team's role alongside aeronautical engineers.

Sarah Edwards, Developer, Cheltenham, UK: “I've always been awe-inspired by space. I wasn't old enough to witness the Apollo moon landings but I wish I had been there to see it. Man went to the moon at a time when computing power was very much in its infancy. It was a time when the only thing that really mattered to the team was getting there. I believe that our species can achieve even greater things in the far and distant future if everyone on this planet pooled their strengths and resources together as one humanity."

Casey Victor, Software Developer, Durban, South Africa: “The stereotypical programmer is no more, being a female software engineer today is not as strange as it may have been in 1969. Considering how software engineering and technology has expanded and evolved since the moon landing makes it an exciting time to be in this profession today and looking forward.”

Karen Huang, Delivery Team Lead, Sydney, Australia: "50 years ago, we sent man to the moon. Today, we have SpaceX launching recycled rockets, revolutionising space transportation, with the ultimate goal of making life multi-planetary. If you can dream it, you can build it. That’s the magic of technology. From Margaret’s story, I see determination, fearlessness, curiosity and more importantly, turning what she believed into actions. Compared with other domains, software engineering is relatively easier for women to enter. I never had to worry about if I was the only one in my class. If there’s anything that would stop me from moving forward, it’d be myself."

Peter Stensmyr, Software Developer, Sydney, Australia: “I think a core part of software engineering is believing that we can solve almost any problem using software. It enables us to do things that used to be simply impossible, and it literally allows us to go places where we could never have gone before. The moon landing is perhaps the strongest, most amazing example of this.”

Yaqi Zhang, Delivery Team Lead, Warwick, UK: “Computer programming for me is no different to art. It pushes the boundaries of human imagination. We try and prove what we can do and then try that bit harder and further. I didn't know about Margaret Hamilton until I decided to pursue a career in technology. I’d only really heard a bit about other women programmers here and there, which in the early days made me question my career choice. When I encountered Margaret’s legacy under the title: “The best female programmer,” I went on to find out about her and realised what a key part she played in one of the greatest human adventures. It has definitely encouraged me to do what I enjoy.”

Leon Bezuidenhout, Technical Lead, Sydney, Australia: “For me the moon landing is the ultimate success story of the agile philosophy - before ‘agile’ was a concept. Getting people to the moon posed multiple challenges and NASA solved the problem by breaking it down to smaller problems and iterated until they had a whole viable solution.”

Michael Stange, Head of Technology Delivery, Melbourne: “The story of Margaret’s achievements from 1960 stands as a reminder of what’s possible when we combine human and machine intelligence. As we increasingly move towards a digital future where software will be integrated into almost all aspects of our lives, I’m excited to see what the next 50 years of software engineering might look like. I am also hopeful that we see the gender diversity pendulum swing the other way so that stories like that of what Margaret was able to achieve don’t stand out as being so unique.”

Antony Nevis, Technical Lead, Sydney, Australia: “Today ‘Software Engineering’ is a common term which came into existence because of Margaret Hamilton and the Moon Landing. For me it's about collaboration between hundreds of engineers both hardware and software, both equally important.”