MELBOURNE, Fla. - More than 30 years ago as a wide-eyed Clemson University senior, Charlie Blackwell-Thompson walked into Firing Room 1 at Kennedy Space Center - a historically male-dominated setting - hoping to land a job testing software for space shuttle payloads.
Today, Blackwell-Thompson commands that firing room. As NASA's first female launch director, she'll lead the countdown when the ambitious Artemis missions propel the next American astronauts to the moon - including the first woman.
"It's kind of ironic and wonderful at the same time. I came into this room, Firing Room 1. They were getting space shuttle Discovery ready to fly after the Challenger accident, so it was STS-26 (in September 1988)," Blackwell-Thompson recalled, seated at her station overlooking dozens of computer terminals and the red-numbered countdown clock.
"For a young woman that's still in school at the time, I didn't understand fully everything that the team was doing. But the thing that I absolutely knew, when I walked in this room, was that I wanted to be a part of this team," she said.
The Artemis program will attempt to build off the success of the Apollo 11 moon landing 50 years ago. Artemis is the Greek moon goddess and the twin sister of Apollo. If all goes as planned, two American astronauts - one male, one female - aboard NASA's Orion spacecraft will board a lunar lander and descend to the surface near the moon's south pole by 2024.
Blackwell-Thompson oversees nearly 100 personnel assigned to teams by discipline: avionics, electrical engineering, cryogenic propulsion for ground and flight systems.
"She's already running launch sims in the control room right now, getting ready for that launch," Bob Cabana, Kennedy Space Center director, said during a Melbourne Regional Chamber breakfast speech in August.
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"And she's the one that's going to say, 'Go,' when Artemis 1 goes on its first mission," Cabana said.
To prepare for the moon landing, next year's uncrewed Artemis 1 mission will lift the Orion spacecraft to lunar orbit for testing before returning to Earth and splashing down in the Pacific Ocean. The mission should last 26 to 42 days.
Artemis 2 is slated to propel two astronauts around the moon and back in 2022, reaching a speed of 24,500 mph. The Artemis 3 lunar landing should occur two years later.
"Blackwell-Thompson makes visible to young girls, and exemplifies for young boys, that women have strong capabilities, unrelenting potential and the leadership qualities to serve at any helm," said Holly Hotchner, president and chief executive officer of the National Women's History Museum in Alexandria, Virginia.
NASA officials view Artemis as a stepping stone toward sending the first humans to Mars during the 2030s.
To prepare for Artemis, Blackwell-Thompson's team is running simulation exercises and building procedures for an array of contingencies, ranging from temperature readings across the spacecraft to weather conditions to communication with Johnson Space Center in Houston.
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"We interject problems in a day-of-launch scenario, and we work through them as a team and ensure that we get to the right answer," Blackwell-Thompson said.
"You want to have seen all of those failure scenarios, or all of those problems that you can encounter on our launch day," she said.
Born in rural Gaffney, South Carolina, Blackwell-Thompson credits her STEM educational background with her rise up NASA's ranks. The Merritt Island resident became assistant launch director during the shuttle program, served as lead electrical engineer for Hubble Space Telescope servicing missions and holds multiple patents. She was named launch director in 2016.
Blackwell-Thompson is following the pioneering footsteps of JoAnn Morgan, who broke the glass ceiling as the first female engineer in the firing room during the Apollo program. After retiring in 2003 after a 45-year NASA career, Morgan returned to Kennedy Space Center in July during 50th anniversary festivities of the Apollo 11 moon landing.
"To think that 50 years ago, we had one woman in the control center that was in a technical position. I look at the makeup of our team - and it's a lot different," Blackwell-Thompson said.
"Our team is a reflection of the world in which we live. It is a blend of men and women. It is a blend of backgrounds and ethnicities. It is a blend of folks that have put in many years of experience with shuttles and other launch vehicles, coupled with some folks - just like I started - who are young and right out of school," she said.
"We are a blend of all those things and all those attributes," she said.
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Blackwell-Thompson said one of her biggest challenges was finding a balance between her two passions - her family and her job - especially when her children were younger. Two of Blackwell-Thompson's three children are attending college, while the oldest works as a mechanical engineer in South Florida.
"Learning to juggle the demands of home and work is a skill I had to learn, and one that I still work on," Blackwell-Thompson said.
"You have to know your priorities - both at work and at home - and make sure that those priority items are taken care of. That's what I have found works for me," she said.
Blackwell-Thompson's team started formal countdown simulations in April to prepare for Artemis missions. In July, a successful Orion launch abort test took flight from Launch Complex 46 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
"Ms. Blackwell-Thompson represents exactly what our organization strives to achieve, increasing leadership opportunities for and visibility of women in the aerospace community," said Rebecca Keiser, who chairs Women in Aerospace, a Washington, D.C., organization.
Keiser previously held several positions with NASA, including associate deputy administrator for strategy and policy. Today, she heads the National Science Foundation's Office of International Science & Engineering.
"Charlie is helping to pave the way for a future where being female - and being an aerospace leader - are the rule rather than the exception," she said.
Follow Rick Neale on Twitter: @RickNeale1
This article originally appeared on Florida Today: NASA's first female launch director to lead Artemis mission countdown