With any luck, a giant 322-foot rocket will vault into space.
And if it does, it’s because a woman sent it there.
As the Artemis I launch director, Charlie Blackwell-Thompson is the first woman in history to oversee a NASA countdown and liftoff. That means it’ll be her voice, with a bit of a South Carolina drawl, calling the final “Go for launch.”
Her ascent from a flight software engineer with an aerospace contractor to the top rank of the launch team is a sign of how dramatically the U.S. space agency has changed from the smoke-filled control rooms of the Apollo era.
This is not your daddy’s moon mission.
NASA will attempt a moon launch in November. So will someone else.
Nearly 50 years after the final Apollo flight, NASA returns to the moon with Artemis, a new human space exploration program named after the Greek Goddess of the hunt.
On its maiden 25-day voyage, the Orion capsule will travel 1.3 million miles, testing various orbits, swinging past the moon, and coming back home hotter and faster than any spacecraft has ever flown. No astronauts are onboard, but the flight’s success will clear the way for future crewed missions to the moon, and eventually maybe Mars.
This time the lunar journey is not just about breaking through Earth’s atmosphere, but glass ceilings. NASA has already promised the Artemis III mission, as early as 2025, will see the first woman walk on the moon. And two test dummies in the Artemis I crew module, Helga and Zohar, show NASA’s commitment to diversity in space: Women might be more vulnerable to space radiation, and the experiment seeks to study its effect on female bodies.
Today, about 30 percent of the launch control team is female.
“In the case of the Apollo 11 launch, we had one woman in the firing room of 450 men,” Blackwell-Thompson said. “One.”
“In the case of the Apollo 11 launch, we had one woman in the firing room of 450 men. One.”
Charlie Blackwell-Thompson, the Artemis I launch director, will give the final “Go for launch.”
Credit: NASA / Joel Kowsky
So far it’s been trial by fire. She scrubbed the Aug. 29 launch, halting the countdown clock at T-minus 40 minutes, after learning one of the rocket’s four engines seemed not to be reaching the proper chilled temperature.
“Our launch team was really, I’ll say, pushed today,” said Jim Free, NASA’s associate administrator for exploration systems development at a post-scrub news briefing. “They were working on a lot of issues.”
She waived off another attempt five days later on Sept. 3 after engineers discovered a drastic liquid hydrogen leak at the base of the rocket. The team tried to get control over the seeping fuel, but all their efforts were fruitless.
“She was focused, head in the game,” said Mike Sarafin, Artemis I mission manager. “There’s definitely time to reflect on [a decision to scrub] after you come out of the firing room, on the drive home, or once you’re home … she didn’t show any claim that she was focused on anything other than the right decisions for her team, for the spacecraft, and for the rocket.”
Charlie Blackwell-Thompson started her career as a flight software engineer with an aerospace contractor before ascending to the top rank of the Kennedy Space Center launch team.
Credit: NASA / Ben Smegelsky
First foot in the firing room
As a college senior studying computer engineering, Blackwell-Thompson interviewed for a job with The Boeing Company at Kennedy Space Center.
While touring the world-famous launch site in Cape Canaveral, Florida, she saw the legendary Space Shuttle up close. But it was the launch team in Firing Room 1, at the time preparing Discovery to return to flight after the Challenger explosion, that really impressed her.
Little did she know she’d be presiding over that very room — a favorite for helming important NASA launches — today. The nearly 100 people within the firing room, about four miles from the site, are the closest humans to the Statue of Liberty-size rocket as it blasts from the ground.
Nearly 100 people within the firing room, about four miles from the site, are the closest humans to the Statue of Liberty-size rocket as it blasts from the ground.
Credit: NASA / Ben Smegelsky
Like Blackwell-Thompson, Ivette Rivera Aponte, an integration engineer who led the design and construction of the crew access arm for Orion, was inspired after the Challenger accident in 1986.
Though she was only five when it happened, she distinctly recalls the Time magazine cover with the story. Aponte didn’t yet understand the tragedy, but it was that moment she learned what an astronaut was. From then on, she was hooked on space.
Two decades ago when she started her NASA career, she was the only woman in her group of civil engineers; among the mechanical and electrical engineers, there was just a “sprinkling.”
“Since then, it has been such a pride of mine to see how the female presence has grown in all capacities,” she told Mashable. “And now those people that actually started out together, those are leaders.”
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“Since then, it has been such a pride of mine to see how the female presence has grown in all capacities. And now those people that actually started out together, those are leaders.”
When the countdown clock ticks down again, Blackwell-Thompson will be perched at her desk on the top row of the firing room, closest to an enormous slanted wall of windows facing the launchpad. It’s the best seat in the house.
She’s the epitome of “grace under pressure,” said Jeremy Parsons, deputy manager of NASA’s exploration ground systems.
“It’s so important that the leader of a very hazardous, very high-stress environment, stays completely calm, keeps the temperature down,” he told Mashable, “and focuses on what are those most important points that need to be done to ensure we’re safe to go fly.”
This story was originally published on Aug. 30, 2022. It has been updated to reflect NASA’s subsequent launch attempts.