(This article first appeared on LinkedIn).
The computer running the lunar module was trying to shift to a radar system. If the system were allowed to make the shift, the mission would have to be aborted, and the astronauts would have to turn their spacecraft around and return to earth.
Fortunately, a different set of instructions took control of the computer, and the mission continued. The Apollo 11 lunar module landed, and astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first man to step onto the surface of the moon.
This past summer, the computer code that ran the systems responsible for putting Armstrong and his colleague Buzz Aldrin on the moon was published in its entirety on Github, a popular open source platform that software developers use to publish and edit each other's code.
The code was developed by a team of software engineers at MIT's Software Engineering Lab led by Margaret Hamilton. Hamilton was honored by NASA in 2003, when she was presented a special award recognizing the value of her innovations in the Apollo software development. The award included the largest financial award that NASA had ever presented to any individual up to that point, according to their website.
On November 22, President Obama awarded Hamilton one of 21 Presidential Freedom Awards. The highest civilian award of the United States, it is given to "those who have made an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors", according to the White House website.
At the award ceremony in the White House, President Obama said Hamilton represents "that generation of unsung women who helped send humankind into space."
Ever since I was a kid, the only names I've associated with the first landing on the moon are those of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. They were -- and to this day still are -- the instantly recognizable names of an effort that, according to NASA's website, involved as many as 400,000 people.
Until I read the story of how the Apollo 11 computer code was published to Github in an article on Quartz this past summer, I had never heard of Hamilton. Perhaps the folks at the White House who were making their selection for this year's awards spotted the same story, and decided to recognize her accomplishments this year.
That it took nearly half a century to recognize Hamilton's contribution to the Apollo 11 space program is indicative of a bigger problem facing women in computer science and engineering fields: There's a serious gender gap in computing that has only been getting worse over time.
According to statistics shared by Girls Who Code, 37% of all computer science graduates in 1984 were women; today, that number is just 18%. By 2020, there will be 1.4 million jobs available in computing related fields in the US, but women are on track to fill just 3% of those positions.
There has been no shortage of programs in recent years aimed at drawing girls into computer science, like STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) programs in American schools. As part of that broader initiative, many schools now teach basic coding skills, thanks to fun and easy-to-use visual programming languages like Scratch. Several excellent programs like Girls Who Code have appeared in recent years that focus on teaching girls the fundamentals of computer science.
Beyond these programs, however, what girls need is more visible role models, women who can inspire them to imagine different possibilities for their careers and their lives. My ten-year-old daughter has heard of Neil Armstrong. But what textbook or website teaches her and other young girls about Margaret Hamilton, who not only wrote the code that helped put the first men on the moon, but is also credited with pioneering the software industry?
Or what about women like the late Admiral Grace Hopper, known as "the first lady of software" for her pioneering work in computer programming from the 1940s through the 1980s. Hopper invented the first compiler for a computer programming language, and she promoted the idea of machine-independent programming languages which led to the development of COBOL, one of the first high-level programming languages.
Her work has inspired the establishment of the world's largest gathering of women technologists, the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. Hopper was one of the 21 recipients of the Presidential Freedom Award given by President Obama (and one of only two honorees who received it posthumously).
In awarding the Presidential Freedom Award to these two remarkable women, President Obama has finally recognized the crucial role that these women have played in the fields of space exploration and computer science.
But this is not enough.
Alongside the courses in science, technology, engineering, and math that young girls like my daughter are required to take, educators should make sure that girls (and boys) are also studying the inspiring stories of Margaret Hamilton, Grace Hopper, and the many other "unsung women" who are changing our world.
That could take some time, though. So while we wait for schools to update textbooks and websites, parents should start sharing these stories with their children today. Our kids should learn how Neil Armstrong's "one small step for a man" on the moon was made possible--in no small part--by a woman.