When the first man set foot on the moon, Kathryn Heafield was studying music right outside of Paris at Fontainebleau. She and her classmates were watching the moon landing in a large, echoey room on a black-and-white TV about the size of a computer screen. After the broadcast was over, her teacher, Nadia Boulanger, a leading teacher of musicians in the 20th century, raised a glass of champagne and asked her students to raise their glasses to the men that made it possible.
“I said, ‘Wait a minute — my sister worked on the moon landing,’ ” said Heafield, a Seattle resident. “And [Boulanger] said oh no, women can’t do that. I said, well, my sister did.”
Heafield’s sister, Margaret Heafield Hamilton, was fundamental to the 1969 moon landing and the development of software engineering as we know it today. Heafield shared her sister’s story Friday afternoon at the Greenwood Senior Center during a party to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. At 7:56 p.m. Pacific Time on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first human to walk on the moon. Guests were invited to share their memories of his moonwalk and all the events that surrounded it.
Heafield was one of two dozen people who talked about what the event meant to her.
“She actually came up with the term software engineering,” Heafield said, referring to her sister, Hamilton, as she held a Lego version of her older sister in her hand. The toy was released as part of Lego’s 2017 “Women of NASA” collection. “I believe my sister can do anything,” Heafield said.
Hamilton was the director of the software engineering lab at MIT that was tasked with developing the on-flight software for the Apollo program. In 2016, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama for her work on the Apollo missions. Even when Hamilton was a teenager, Heafield remembers her being hardworking, popular and intelligent.
“She’s an unlikely celebrity,” said Heafield. “She didn’t try to promote herself but she was always selected for things. She was homecoming queen. She’s my big sister.”
Because Hamilton was working so closely with the Apollo mission, Heafield found out earlier than most that Americans were going to the moon.
“When my sister came home for Christmas vacation [in 1966],” said Heafield, “She said, ‘Dad, we’re going to the moon, and we’re going with these. And she dropped a stack of papers on the table.’ ” At the word “moon,” Heafield couldn’t help but laugh.
“It was incredible,” said Heafield.
Party-goers from all over Seattle stood up to share their stories: Where they were when Armstrong set foot on the moon and how they felt. The group had a range of emotions, but they all shared the same pride. One guest remembered watching President John F. Kennedy’s 1962 “We choose to go to the moon” speech and feeling deeply inspired, like he could conquer anything. Another shared how the gynecologist, James Joki, who helped deliver her grandchildren, was an integral part of the Apollo 11 mission.
“I was what people would call a hippie then,” said Nancy Spangler, 68. “That was about a month before the very first Woodstock and we were staying in an abandoned hotel near there. I heard about the moon landing on a battery-powered radio.”
Another memory was simpler: Jamie Holkup, 73, watched the moon landing from her home in Edmonds.
“I was facing west toward my patio door. I saw the full moon, and the TV screen. It almost acted as a magnifying glass,” Holkup said. As she looked between the moon landing on her TV screen and the real moon right outside, she couldn’t figure out what to pay attention to. She was entranced.
“I’ll never forget that,” said Holkup.
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Kathryn Heafield’s first name, and misidentified the occupation of Nadia Boulanger.