50 Years Later: Former GW Professor Reflects on the Apollo Program

Dianne Martin says her time working as a programmer leading up to the moon landing changed the course of her life.

July 3, 2019

Dianne Martin

Dianne Martin, a former GW computer science professor and vice provost for faculty affairs, worked on the Apollo program as an IBM programmer. (William Atkins/ GW Today)

By Kristen Mitchell

Dianne Martin, Ed.D. ’87, likes to say she got involved with the Apollo program “quite by chance.” She was one year out of college and teaching ninth grade math when she was recruited by IBM to become a junior programmer— a job that changed her life forever. 

Dr. Martin, a former School of Engineering and Applied Science computer science professor and vice provost for faculty affairs, was hired to work in IBM’s federal systems division based at NASA in Greenbelt, Md. She was assigned to work on the Apollo program. She worked on two programs: one that received data from radar stations all over the world and converted it into a unified format and another where she converted math into a programming language so the team could determine where the module was supposed to be at any given time. 

During Apollo 8, the first manned mission to circle the moon, Dr. Martin got to be in mission control in Greenbelt, which was running in tandem with the Houston-based team in case there were any technical problems. She was forced to leave IBM just weeks before Apollo 11, when American astronauts landed on the moon, because she was expecting a baby.

“I reflect on it now ... I knew it was a historical event that we were landing on the moon, I had no sense of myself being part of history,” she said. “It hasn’t been until all these long, many years that I’ve realized that all those other people and I were really part of making history.”

Watching Neil Armstrong take a step on the moon was one thing— but seeing the crew successfully reverse the mission and land back on Earth was the most amazing part, she said. 

Every Apollo mission pushed the boundaries of what was possible. As she reflects on the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, Dr. Martin said she is struck by the bravery of the astronauts who put their lives on the line for the advancement of human knowledge.

“Every time they went up, they had no idea if they were coming back or not because something new was going to be tried and tested,” Dr. Martin said. “If you think about it now, your cell phone probably has as much power as that computer that ran the Apollo mission.”

Dr. Martin received a master’s degree in computer science from the University of Maryland in 1972 and worked there as an instructor until coming to GW in 1983. During her more than 30 years at the university, she researched the impact rapidly changing technology has had on society and ethical issues surrounding technology before retiring in 2016. 

Without the Apollo program, Dr. Martin thinks she would have continued teaching high school math. She fell in love with computer science while working on the Apollo missions.

“It totally changed my path. I got advanced degrees in computer science, became a computer science professor and I still taught, which was my passion, but at a totally different level and in a different, new area,” she said. “It certainly changed my path and shaped my destiny.”