The longtime NASA engineer is leading the team responsible for sending Artemis I to space.
“Go for launch.”
Words like these are often uttered when a rocket is seconds from heading to space. On Wednesday, after decades of American spaceflight and numerous launches, a woman will be saying them for NASA.
The Artemis I rocket, now on Launch Pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and preparing to launch for the moon on Wednesday, is counting down to ignition. The final decision will be in the hands of Charlie Blackwell-Thompson, who has worked in spaceflight for more than 30 years. As launch director, she’s the boss of the “firing room” during the countdown, and the buck stops with her.
“Firsts don’t come along that often and to be at the beginning of a program that is going to take the first woman and the next man back to the Moon is pretty special,” Ms. Blackwell-Thompson said during a news conference this summer. “It’s pretty special to me.”
Ms. Blackwell-Thompson compared the Apollo and Artemis missions while speaking at another news conference. Decades ago for Apollo 11, there was just one woman in the firing room of 450 men, she said. Today, on launch day for Artemis I, 30 percent of the approximately 100 engineers in the firing room are women.
“There is, without a doubt, a female presence as part of this — in both the leadership of this program and the operations areas, as well as the name of the program itself,” she said. “So certainly the makeup of our workforce has changed over the course of the 50 years.”
According to NASA, Ms. Blackwell-Thompson oversees all countdown planning, training and procedures, including developing plans if the countdown must be halted and the launch rescheduled.
On launch day, Ms. Blackwell-Thompson and her team in Firing Room 1 of the Launch Control Center will confirm that the rocket is ready for flight. They’ll be carefully “monitoring and controlling” the rocket both before and after ignition, NASA said in a news release. These moments follow several years of preparation.
Ms. Blackwell-Thompson graduated from Clemson University in South Carolina with a degree in computer engineering in 1988, according to NASA. She worked on NASA space shuttle missions first as a payload flight software engineer for Boeing, a NASA contractor, and was a lead electrical engineer on multiple Hubble Space Telescope repair missions. She became a NASA employee in 2004, and she holds multiple patents on spaceflight systems.
On a NASA podcast last year, she described the thrill of walking into Firing Room 1 for the first time in 1988 while touring the Kennedy Space Center during a job interview with Boeing, and seeing staff prepare the space shuttle Discovery for the first mission after the Challenger disaster.
“I wanted to be a part of that team. I wanted to earn myself a seat in the room, and I was lucky enough over time, to do that,” she said.
She was named NASA’s first female launch director in January 2016, setting her on the path to lead Firing Room 1 on Wednesday.
Other women have also recently played key roles in space missions. Sarah Gillis, the lead space operations engineer for SpaceX, guided four amateur astronauts during their trip to orbit in September.