Coding to the Moon: Margaret Hamilton and the Apollo Missions

Margaret Hamilton poses with an MIT pennant inside an Apollo lunar capsule model. Photo- MIT Museum.

History books are filled with tales of brave men who broke the rules to forge a future with their vision. Conquering kings, wise politicians and brilliant scientists offer our sons a list of heroes to emulate, and frontiers to push.

What about our daughters?

Imagine for a moment how America might look today had our “Founding Fathers” actively included a fair collection of mothers. As Co-Artistic Director of Wild Swan Theater, and the playwright of Coding to the Moon, Hilary Cohen knows the vital role that inspiration plays in education. This year, in commemoration of Wild Swan’s 40th Anniversary, Cohen inspires our daughters.

In Coding to the Moon: Margaret Hamilton and the Apollo Missions, Cohen explores how the 20th century’s most astonishing feat would not have been possible without Margaret Hamilton, a young female software engineer. Hamilton’s remarkable innovation, foresight and leadership allowed Neil Armstrong to take that “one small step” to forever alter the course of human history.

Writing the play, Cohen was driven by disheartening statistics revealing that interest in science among young girls drops-off dramatically in middle school. So, she set out to share the story of an ordinary young girl who embraced an extraordinary destiny, told in a way that is particularly accessible to middle schoolers. Fortunately for the playwright, her subject is still living and and generous enough with her time to spend “hours and hours” in conversations with Cohen over two years as the play took shape.

Brains, not brawn

From the 1960s space race between nations, leading to brave test-pilots being strapped to rockets and shot into space, the Apollo program has the explosive drama and larger-than-life characters to inspire a dozen stage plays. Bookish and bespectacled, Hamilton is an unlikely hero in this high-stakes world, but it was her brains that made the mission possible.

“It’s one of the great scientific accomplishments of all-time, but it wouldn’t have happened without the onboard computer,” observes Cohen, “because the navigation (wasn’t possible) with the technology we had. The computer was absolutely necessary. There was no such thing as software when Hamilton started writing code. Everything had to be invented when she was doing this, and that part of the story is wild.”

Margaret Hamilton, lead Apollo flight software engineer, in the Apollo Command Module. Photo- MIT Museum.

The Apollo Guidance Computer was, in fact, the first silicon integrated circuit-based computer. By pioneering the use of silicon chips, Hamilton and her team at MIT were able to create a computer small enough to fit in the cramped quarters of the space shuttle (at a time when a typical computer might take up an entire room). The drama intensified as the cocksure pilots balked at the prospect of a computer doing their work for them.

“It makes good theater as well as an exciting science story,” explains Cohen while reflecting on the Apollo 11 moon landing. “It was such a great, shared sense of accomplishment. Imagine what might be possible today if 400,000 of our greatest scientists decided that climate change was something that mattered to all of us.”

The play follows three critical chapters of Hamilton’s life. We see her as a 7-year-old girl dreaming of life among the stars. Then, Hamilton is a young woman in her twenties, leading an intrepid team of scientists in developing the Apollo Guidance Computer. Finally, we meet Hamilton as an octogenarian reflecting on her remarkable accomplishments.

Vibraphonist Jon Brown performs the original score composed by U of M Music Professor Erik Santos, and video art by Dave Foresee and Ariana Shaw provides a cosmic backdrop to the earthbound drama.

‘Coding to the Moon: Margaret Hamilton and
the Apollo Missions’ premieres this month.

$15, adults. $12, youth and seniors.
March 4-7
10am, Wednesday-Friday. 12:30pm, Friday. 2pm, Saturday.
Washtenaw Community College Towsley Auditorium
4800 E. Huron River Dr., Ann Arbor.
734-995-0530 | wildswantheater.org