Apollo Coder and 'Apollo 13' Actor Receive Presidential Medals of Freedom

Presidential Medal of Freedom 2016 ceremony
President Barack Obama presents Apollo code developer Margaret Hamilton (at left) and "Apollo 13" actor Tom Hanks (right) with the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Nov. 22, 2016. (Image credit: The White House via collectSPACE.com)

A computer scientist who created the on-board flight software for NASA's Apollo spacecraft and an actor who famously portrayed an astronaut whose life relied on that programming were among the recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom presented Tuesday (Nov. 22) at the White House.

President Barack Obama bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States' highest civilian honor, to Margaret H. Hamilton and Tom Hanks, along with a diverse group of 19 other recipients, including basketball players Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, actors Robert De Niro and Robert Redford, comedian Ellen DeGeneres, and singers Diana Ross and Bruce Springsteen.

"Today, we celebrate extraordinary Americans who've lifted our spirits, strengthened our union and pushed us towards progress," said Obama. "I always love doing this event, but this is a particularly impressive class." [NASA's Moonwalking Apollo Astronauts: Then and Now]

"We pay tribute to those distinguished individuals with our nation's highest civilian honor," the President said.

Margaret Hamilton led the software engineering division at MIT's Instrumentation Laboratory (now Draper Laboratory) when it was contracted by NASA to develop the guidance systems for the Apollo command module and lunar module in 1961.

"She symbolizes that generation of unsung women who helped send humankind into space," Obama stated. "Her example speaks of the American spirit of discovery that exists in every little girl and boy who knows that somehow to look to the heavens is to look deep within ourselves and figure out just what is possible."

Computer scientist Margaret Hamilton poses for a series of photos with the Apollo guidance software she and her team developed at the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory. (Image credit: MIT Museum)

An example of the importance of Hamilton's software work came during Apollo 11, the first mission to land humans on the moon.

Approximately three minutes before the lunar lander Eagle touched down at Tranquility Base, the on board software overrode a command to alter the flight computer's priority processing to a radar system, which had been incorrectly switched on. The software averted an abort, allowing Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to make history.

"From my own perspective, the software experience itself ... was at least as exciting as the events surrounding the mission," Hamilton told MIT News in 2009. "There was no second chance. We knew that."

Tom Hanks' portrayal of Jim Lovell in the 1995 feature film "Apollo 13" emphasized that danger the astronauts faced when things went wrong.

"He has introduced us to America's unassuming heroes," said Obama. "Tom says he just saw ordinary guys who did the right thing at the right time. Well, it takes one to know one."

"He's championed veterans, supported space exploration, and the truth is Tom has always saved his best roles for real life. He is a good man, which is the best title you can have," said the President.

Hanks went on to produce "From the Earth to the Moon," the Emmy Award-winning HBO miniseries that brought to television the larger history of the entire Apollo program.

Tom Hanks, at right, portrayed astronaut James Lovell in the 1995 feature film "Apollo 13.” (Image credit: Universal Studios)

"I followed the space program heavily when I was a kid," Hanks told Entertainment Weekly in 1995. "Apollo 11, of course, that was the one the whole world stood still for. But I sort of stood still for each one of those Apollo missions."

Hanks' and Hamilton's fellow 2016 Presidential Medal of Freedom honorees also include the late Grace Hopper, the "first lady of software," who led programming development from the 1940s through the 1980s, and Richard Garwin, a polymath physicist who is known as the author of the first hydrogen bomb design, but also penned a 1958 paper that established the basic principles for solar sailing.

With Tuesday's presentation, Obama set a new record for awarding the most Presidential Medals of Freedom by any president to date. Among the more than 114 honorees who have been selected by Obama are astronauts John Glenn and Sally Ride and "human computer" Katherine G. Johnson.

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Robert Z. Pearlman
collectSPACE.com Editor, Space.com Contributor

Robert Pearlman is a space historian, journalist and the founder and editor of collectSPACE.com, an online publication and community devoted to space history with a particular focus on how and where space exploration intersects with pop culture. Pearlman is also a contributing writer for Space.com and co-author of "Space Stations: The Art, Science, and Reality of Working in Space” published by Smithsonian Books in 2018. He previously developed online content for the National Space Society and Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, helped establish the space tourism company Space Adventures and currently serves on the History Committee of the American Astronautical Society, the advisory committee for The Mars Generation and leadership board of For All Moonkind. In 2009, he was inducted into the U.S. Space Camp Hall of Fame in Huntsville, Alabama. In 2021, he was honored by the American Astronautical Society with the Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History.