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The space race 2.0 and the mother of software engineering

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On 11th July 2021, Richard Branson made history when his rocket plane Unity successfully flew him to the edge of space and back again. Branson beat out his (often more vocal) competition to become the first person to test his plans for commercial space flights, though Jeff Bezos would follow just nine days later. 

When we think about the space race, we tend to consider it as a feat of physical engineering, but software engineers shoulder a fair amount of the responsibility too – both for putting man on the moon in 1969 and for turning dreams of space tourism into a not-too-distant reality.

The first names that come into your mind when you hear ‘space race’ are likely to be men; whether that’s Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins or Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. But if you’ve seen Hidden Figures – or you know your space history – you’ll know that women played an instrumental role in what was to become a giant leap for mankind. 

And, somewhat forgotten among them, is the woman who first coined the term ‘software engineering’.

The mother of software engineering

Margaret Hamilton was born on 17th August 1936 in Paoli, Indiana. After studying mathematics and philosophy, she began working in the meteorology department at MIT for Edward Norton Lorenz, where she would contribute to his work on chaos theory.

In the early sixties, she wrote software used by the US Air Force to search for potentially ‘unfriendly’ aircraft, as well as satellite tracking software. This work would ultimately lead to her attaining the position of Lead Developer for the Apollo flight software at NASA. 

Hamilton was responsible for all the Command Module software; everything needed for navigation and lunar landing guidance. She is particularly known for her life-cycle management techniques, which makes her code incredibly reliable because it helps other Software Engineers identify and fix anomalies before they become a problem.

Without Hamilton, we may have considered ‘software engineering’ very differently today, as she is attributed with creating the name and helping to establish the field’s credibility. Hamilton said, “I fought to bring the software legitimacy so that it – and those building it – would be given 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.”

Software engineering and the second race to space

As you’d expect, things have changed more than 60 years on from the original space race. Though there was a lull in the advancement of technology once the space race (and the Cold War) was won, innovation has rocketed in the last decade or so, with a new goal: to make space tourism commercially viable. In fact, it’s estimated that the global space economy could grow from $350 billion today, to more than $1 trillion in 2040, fuelled by continued technological development.

And, though legacy space businesses are still major players in the market, many of the companies driving innovation in the industry are tech businesses – approaching space travel in a totally new way. 

Loft Orbital, for example, uses Python to test all of its satellites, as does Spire. Using software makes things much faster than legacy space companies can compete with, reducing projects with multi-year timescales to just a six-month time frame. Software will be every bit as important as hardware in truly conquering the final frontier. 

Womankind left behind

While mankind took its giant leap and technology advances into the stratosphere, women have been left behind. Though the discipline was defined by a woman, like many STEM sectors, it has been dominated by men. Currently, women make up just 14 per cent of the software engineering workforce.

So, what will it take for womankind to have its own giant leap? As with Armstrong, progress is likely to be measured in small steps. But as the Billionaire Boys’ Club tussles for space supremacy, we must remember the people that made the journey possible and honour their legacy as we do those who write the cheques.

Margaret Hamilton legitimised the field of software engineering, and in doing so advanced the discipline, ensuring people understood its importance early on. She did so at a time when women in the US were unable to attend the Ivy League, serve on a jury or even get a credit card without a co-signature from their husbands. 

Women’s equality is now enshrined in law, but things aren’t always so straightforward in the workplace. We must ensure women are given equal opportunities throughout software engineering – who knows what would have happened in the space race otherwise?

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