When man (or more specifically, a man) stepped foot on the surface of the Moon on July 20, 1969, software was a relatively new development. In fact, the Moon mission was one of the first times this kind of engineering was used in such a fundamental—not to mention high-stakes—way. History was being written that day, and a woman named Margaret Hamilton had authored the code that made it possible.
Hamilton was born in 1936, and received a B.A. in math from Earlham College. She taught herself to program before becoming the director of the Software Engineering Division of the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory, which developed software for the NASA Apollo programs.
In the photo below, Hamilton stands with printouts of the code for the Apollo Guidance Computer—the same code that helped us reach the Moon—which was developed by the team that she led, and much of which she wrote herself. This shot was taken during the Apollo 11 mission, when Hamilton was 33 years old. Her code ran in one of the first ever chip-based computers, which had only 64 kilobytes of memory.
Hamilton, who was among the first women to join the world of software development, was a modern day pioneer. She is even credited with coining the term software engineering. For her contributions to the field, Hamilton received the Augusta Ada Lovelace Award from the Association of Women in Computing in 1986, the NASA Exceptional Space Act Award in 2003, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (America's highest civilian honor) in 2016.
In 2014, Hamilton was interviewed by El País about the attention she has received from the circulation of her photo online. She explained:
"Software during the early days of this project was treated like a stepchild and not taken as seriously as other engineering disciplines, such as hardware engineering; and it was regarded as an art and as magic, not a science. I had always believed that both art and science were involved in its creation, but at that time most thought otherwise. Knowing this, I fought to bring the software legitimacy so that it (and those building it) would be given its due respect and thus I began to use the term “software engineering” to distinguish it from hardware and other kinds of engineering; yet, treat each type of engineering as part of the overall systems engineering process. When I first started using this phrase, it was considered to be quite amusing. It was an ongoing joke for a long time. They liked to kid me about my radical ideas. Software eventually and necessarily gained the same respect as any other discipline."
Hamilton also wrote that the Apollo 11 mission had the "most exciting, memorable moments on the Apollo project," but that Apollo 8 was a close second.
Each year, millions of kids fill their summer vacation days with songs, crafts, and outdoor activities at camp. Summer camps across the U.S. share many similarities, but Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama is unique. Instead of canoeing and archery, young attendees get to ride spacecraft simulators, build robots, and program computers. It’s the closest young civilians can come to working for NASA.
Space Camp welcomed its first aspiring astronauts in 1982, and since then, more than 900,000 campers have attended the program. From its famous alumni to its depiction in film, here are some more facts about Space Camp.
1. The movie SpaceCamp boosted its popularity.
SpaceCamp, the movie inspired by the real camp in Huntsville, Alabama, wasn’t a huge hit when it debuted in theaters in 1986. It grossed just $9,697,739—a little more than half its reported budget. But it didn’t fade into obscurity completely. The film saw success in the home video market and became popular enough to leave a lasting mark on pop culture. Dr. Deborah Barnhart, the real camp’s director for part of the 1980s, told AL.com that attendance doubled following the movie’s release. SpaceCamp shot many of its scenes on location at the Huntsville center. The life-sized space-shuttle flight-deck and mid-deck built for the film were donated to the camp and used as a simulator there from 1986 to 2012.
2. Space Camp was the brainchild of a missile designer.
Some people may be surprised to learn that Space Camp is located in Alabama and not Florida, home to Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center (the movie SpaceCamp is set in Florida despite being filmed in Alabama). But Huntsville, Alabama, has been a major aeronautics center since the 1950s when Wernher von Braun and his team of rocketeers moved there. The German scientist had designed ballistic missiles for the United States military after World War II, and shortly after relocating to Huntsville, he redirected his attention to space flight. He launched the U.S. Space and Rocket Center as a way to demonstrate the area’s rocket technology to tourists. Von Braun also came up with the idea for a science-focused alternative to traditional summer camps after seeing children touring the rocket center and taking notes. Space Camp opened at the center in 1982, a few years after his death.
3. Space Camp activities go beyond space.
The kids at Space Camp do more than ride giant rocket simulators. After enrolling, young campers choose a track to focus on. They can study aviation and learn air navigation and combat techniques, choose robotics and build their own robots, or stick to space-centric subjects and activities. The newest Space Camp experience, cyber camp, teaches kids programming and online security skills.
4. The Space Camp simulators don’t make campers sick.
Space Camp is home to three simulators based on real-life training rigs astronauts use to prepare for space missions. The most intense rig is the multi-axis trainer, and just watching a video of it in action may be enough to make you feel queasy. But according to the camp’s website, campers “should not become sick or dizzy on any of our simulators.” On the multi-axis trainer, this is due to the fact that the rider's stomach remains at the center of the chair throughout the simulation, even as the chair itself is spinning in all directions. Motion sickness is caused when your inner ear fluid and your eyes send your brain conflicting information. Because the rig tumbles so wildly, the rider's inner fluid never has a chance to shift and make them want to vomit.
5. Space Camp boasts some famous alumni.
Space Camp attracts bright young minds from around the world, including a few celebrities. Chelsea Clinton attended the week-long program when her father was in the White House in 1993. Amy Carter, Jimmy Carter’s daughter, and Karenna Gore, daughter of Al Gore, also enrolled in the camp. But not every famous Space Camp graduate came from the world of politics: South African actress Charlize Theron is another notable alumna.
6. Several Space Camp graduates went on to be astronauts.
Many kids who go to Space Camp dream of growing up to be astronauts, and for some of them, that dream becomes a reality. The camp’s alumni includes the “Tremendous 12”—a handful of Space Camp graduates who’ve made it to space. Most members of this elite group were trained by NASA, but a few of them went on to work for other space agencies like the ESA.
Even if they don’t go on to be astronauts, most Space Camp attendees have bright futures ahead of them. According to the camp, 61 percent of graduates are studying aerospace, defense, energy, education, biotech, or technology, or they’re working in one of those fields already. Of the alumni pursuing careers in STEM, half of them said that Space Camp inspired that decision.
8. There’s a Space Camp for visually impaired kids.
The U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama hosts a second Space Camp that shares a lot in common with its original program. There are space simulators, astronaut-training missions, and even scuba diving—the main difference is that the kids there are blind or visually impaired. Space Camp for Interested Visually Impaired Students, or SCIVIS, offers children in grades 4 to 12 a crash course in various STEM subjects. They use accessible tools, like computers adapted for speech and reading materials printed in braille or large print. Activities for the week-long camp are organized by teachers familiar with the needs of visually impaired students.
9. Double Dare sent winners to Space Camp.
After conquering the obstacle course of the Nickelodeon game show Double Dare, kid contestants were sent home with various prizes. Though no doubt exciting in the 1980s and '90s, many of the prizes—which included encyclopedias, cassette recorders, and AOL subscriptions—haven’t aged well. A trip to Space Camp was one of the biggest awards players could win, and it’s one of the few that would still have value today.
10. Adults can go to Space Camp too.
If you never went to Space Camp as a kid, you haven’t missed your chance. While the regular Space Camp is only open to kids ages 9 to 18, the U.S. Space & Rocket Center also offers camp programs for older space enthusiasts. Family Space Camp is designed for groups that include at least one child and one adult, and if you don’t plan on tagging along with a kid, you can enroll in the three-day Adult Space Camp experience that’s strictly for campers 18 and older.
NASA astronaut Christina Koch is suited up in a U.S. spacesuit ahead of her history-making spacewalk.
After a surprising cancellation in March, plans for NASA's first all-female spacewalk are back on track. Astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir are scheduled to make history on October 21, 2019.
Earlier this year, NASA canceled the first all-female spacewalk because of an issue with spacesuit sizing. Both astronauts originally scheduled for the walk needed medium-sized suits. At the time, the International Space Station had two—but only one was properly configured for a spacewalk. Preparing the other suit in time would have taken hours of crew labor, The New York Timesreported, so NASA decided to switch out the astronauts.
“When you have the option of just switching the people, the mission becomes more important than a cool milestone,” NASA spokesperson Stephanie Schierholz told The New York Times.
Still, the milestone is a significant one. Since 1961, nearly 550 people have been sent to space. Of those, only about 11 percent have been female.
“I think it’s important because of the historical nature of what we’re doing and in the past, women haven’t always been at the table,” Koch said on NASA TV. “There are a lot of people that derive motivation from inspiring stories from people who look like them, and I think it’s an important aspect of the story to tell.”
The mission itself is fairly routine—Koch and Meir are scheduled to swap out batteries on the station’s solar panels. Live video of the spacewalk (the 222nd spacewalk in history) will be available on NASA’s website.