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From the Palmetto State to the launch pad, NASA's first female launch director is making one giant leap

Charlie Blackwell-Thompson grew up in Gaffney, South Carolina, but her ambitions are taking her beyond the atmosphere and making another leap for humanity.

GAFFNEY, S.C. — The Artemis I mission is set for history. Monday's launch will see mankind's first attempt to get back on the moon more than 50 years after the Apollo mission. To say the countdown is on is quite an understatement.

While the rocket launching from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida won't be manned, it's still an important step to getting people back to the moon. Making sure that step is a success requires a team to send the Artemis rocket into space. And that team needs a leader.

On Monday, Aug. 29, 2022, a woman who grew up in a small town in the upstate of South Carolina will be in the firing room. But she's not just going to be in the room where the call is made to launch.

She's making the call. And she's the first woman to be a launch director in NASA history.

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Charlie Blackwell-Thompson will be the one to oversee the Artemis launch and was named the director for the agency's Exploration Ground Systems program in 2016. When the time comes to clear the rocket for countdown and liftoff, she'll confirm all systems are primed and ready.

Blackwell-Thompson now lives in Florida with her husband and three children, but her roots go back to Gaffney, South Carolina. She grew up in the small town that serves as the seat for Cherokee County, and graduated from Gaffney High School. From there, she worked to earn her degree in computer engineering from Clemson University, just down Interstate 85. After graduating in 1988, she quickly got to work in aerospace.

Credit: NASA
Charlie Blackwell-Thompson

NASA shares Blackwell-Thompson started her career with Boeing as a payload flight software engineer, taking on several missions in that role. She held several roles during her time there, before ultimately joining NASA in 2004 as a test director in the Launch and Landing Division. Some of her work includes testing on the STS missions, including as assistant launch director for STS-133.

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During her career with NASA, Blackwell-Thompson was also named Test Management Branch chief, supported work with the Constellation Program, and has overseen the coordination and integration of launch operations across the three programs: Orion, SLS, and EGS. But how did she get to this point?

In an interview with NBC Nightly News correspondent Kristen Dahlgren that aired on Friday, Aug. 26, 2022, she shared that when she first visited the Kennedy Space Center during her senior year of college, her mind was made up.

"I thought 'I would love to be in this room one day,'" she told the network.

Janet Petro, the center's director, told NBC Blackwell-Thompson "really is a goddess who runs everything that goes on, the processing and the launch operations."

NBC said Blackwell-Thompson raised three children during her career with NASA, working her way up through the ranks. After all those years, it will be her voice to say those critical words come Monday.

"You have a go to launch Artemis I," Blackwell-Thompson said in her interview. "It gives me goosebumps too."

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More than 50 years since mankind first landed on the moon in 1969, Blackwell-Thompson notes a lot has changed. When that first landing happened, only one woman was in the firing room.

"We've changed a lot in terms of the makeup of our team," she said. "Today, we'll have 30 women in the room."

And beyond Earth's atmosphere, when humanity returns to the moon, another giant leap is set to take place.

"The next set of bootprints that are left on the moon by our astronauts will belong to a woman and a person of color," she said. "There are no boundaries, there are no limits."

WCNC Charlotte is live streaming the launch of Artemis I on Monday, Aug. 29. Chief meteorologist Brad Panovich will host it. You can watch online on your mobile device with the WCNC Charlotte app, on wcnc.com, on our Weather IQ YouTube channel, or on the free WCNC+ channel for Roku and Amazon Fire TV sets and devices.


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