Meet the badass woman running NASA’s megarocket launch to the moon.

Charlie Blackwell-Thompson basically wrote the Space Launch System rocket's instruction manual.


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.

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 42-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 moon 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 planned Monday morning launch, halting the countdown clock at T-minus 40 minutes, after learning one of the rocket’s four engines wasn’t reaching the proper chilled temperature. Weather interruptions were also narrowing the two-hour launch window. Flight managers said they’d decide the next steps on Aug. 30.

The pressure to get Orion into space is bearing down on the crew.

“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.”

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.

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