Delightful New Children’s Book Celebrates How Margaret Hamilton Saved the First Lunar Landing

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What a difference a year makes. In 2016, when I was reviewing Rachel Ignotofsky’s Women in Science: 50 Pioneers who Fearlessly Changed the World, I was so happy to see something, anything, at last written for children in the genre of women in science that I was glad to have it. I still am, but here we are in the first months of 2017 and I’ve seen not one, but two children’s books about women scientists pass through my hands that have shown just how much can be accomplished by children’s writers and artists passionately devoted to their subject. We’ve already talked about the near-perfect Out of School and Into Nature: The Anna Comstock Story, and now comes Margaret and the Moon: How Margaret Hamilton Saved the First Lunar Landing, which was released this week. 

Margaret Hamilton has, in the space of a few years, gone from a fringe character beloved by NASA buffs and historians of mid-century computer engineering to a pop figure of broad and irresistible appeal. The classic photos of her standing next to her six foot stack of code, or sitting in the Apollo capsule, have become powerful symbols of a Women In STEM movement looking for foundational heroes. And yet, for all that, there is no stand alone biography of Margaret Hamilton. You find her in articles, and briefly in books about the Apollo mission and the early history of applied software engineering, but as to a dedicated volume about her life and work, there is simply none to be had in juvenile or adult form.

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Margaret and the Moon, then, tells a crucial hidden story, and does it with wonder and elegance that fit well with the hard-working quiet heroism of its protagonist. The author, Dean Robbins, and illustrator, Lucy Knisley, have found a lovely balance of word and image marching together to achieve precisely the right effect at all times. On some pages (such as the heart-melting image of young Hamilton lying out on the grass looking up at the night sky), Robbins pulls back the number of words to let the picture make its full impact, while on others, detailing the stacked complexity of Hamilton’s time as a software engineer, Knisley smartly interweaves her art with images of Hamilton’s code to create something that feels precisely the right mix of history and whimsy. 

The focus of the book is how Hamilton was able, by writing code that exhaustively accounted for all eventualities in the Apollo missions, to save the day on the Apollo 11 mission when a checklist error set the moon lander computer into a tizzy. It’s a moment that perfectly captures the life of a person who loved thinking about problems and finding anticipatory software work-arounds for every conceivable situation.  Robbins’s voice is simple and unaffected, with a delightful ability to move from the scale of the cosmic to the confines of the lone problem solver without feeling out of place in either. That ability, to quickly move between different sizes of narrative frame, is crucial in a book about space pioneers, and Robbins gets it just right here.

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Knisley’s artistic style is another perfect fit.  Just as Jessica Lanan’s watercolors perfectly expressed Anna Comstock’s particular relationship with the natural world, so do Knisley’s bold outlines and flat color fills embody Hamilton’s pure curiosity about mathematics and the cosmos. Her illustrations put me in mind of Mike Allred’s updated Kirby style which was itself the ultimate expression of the Space Age’s vitality and optimism, and so it’s hard to imagine a much better suited choice to tell Hamilton’s Space Age story visually. 

There are books that tell you what great scientists have done and there are, far more rarely, books that show who great scientists were. The former are interesting, if you are predisposed to their particular field of study, but the latter is where inspiration is born – the moment when a child looks across history at another human being and sees something of herself. Margaret Hamilton was a great programmer, but more than that, as Margaret and the Moon brings beautifully to life, she was a person who loved the challenge of pondering and preparing for all the possibilities that reality can throw at our beleaguered species, a creator of plans and counter-plans, an organizer and a completionist. 

We all know a kid like that, and now it’s up to you to find that kid and put this book in her hands. The world will be glad that you did.

Age Range: 4-8 years

Dale DeBakcsy About Dale DeBakcsy

Dale DeBakcsy is the writer and artist of the Women In Science and Cartoon History of Humanism columns, and has, since 2007, co-written the webcomic Frederick the Great: A Most Lamentable Comedy with Geoffrey Schaeffer. He is also a regular contributor to The Freethinker, Philosophy Now, Free Inquiry, and Skeptical Inquirer. He studied intellectual history at Stanford and UC Berkeley before becoming a teacher of mathematics and drawer of historical frippery.

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