Arts & Culture

Meet the Southerner Who Will Become the First Woman to Oversee a NASA Launch

South Carolina native Charlie Blackwell-Thompson
and the Artemis I rocket are preparing for liftoff

photo: NASA/Cory Huston

Charlie Blackwell-Thompson at the Kennedy Space Center's Launch Control Center.

The countdown clock is expected to resume soon for the launch of the Artemis I mission from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the next step in NASA’s plan to bring humans back to the moon. Overseeing the liftoff will be Charlie Blackwell-Thompson, NASA’s first female launch director and a native of Gaffney, South Carolina.

As flight director, Blackwell-Thompson is responsible for ensuring the rocket is ready for blastoff, and she will be the one who makes the “go for launch” call. She’s been preparing for this moment for more than thirty years, since graduating from Clemson University in 1988 with a degree in computer engineering. Blackwell-Thompson started working at the Space Center shortly after graduation, first as a payload flight software engineer for the Boeing Company. She joined NASA in 2004 and was named flight director for Artemis I in 2016.

“I grew up in rural South Carolina,” she told Florida Today. “When I grew up, I don’t know if I ever saw myself in this particular role. I knew that I was good in math and science, but I wasn’t one of those young people who grew up knowing exactly what they wanted to do. But studying in the STEM field opened up a lot of doors for me. What I would say to young women is, if there’s something you’re passionate about, if there’s something that you can dream it, I am proof that you can do it.”

She says it’s taken a lot of hard work along the way, something she learned from her parents and grandparents. “They worked, and they farmed, and they provided food and livestock from their own land,” she told Clemson World magazine. “I don’t know if I appreciated it as much at the time, but it was something that was instilled in me from an early age—a strong work ethic and dedication.” And it’s something Blackwell-Thompson has strived to pass along to her three grown children, Matt, Cody, and Lhotse.

“I really feel blessed to have the opportunity to lead this team. I know I’m the first woman to have this job for NASA—that’s a factual thing. But when I think of myself, I am Matt, Cody, and Lhotse’s mom; that’s the first thing to come to mind,” she told Clemson World. “I am also struck with admiration and appreciation for the women who came before me blazing a trail, who have left their mark on this industry and inspired others. When it comes to being the launch director, I want to be the best that I can be. I want to help set the stage for something that lasts a long time.”

The rocket was originally scheduled to blast off at 8:33 a.m. Eastern on Monday, but a fuel leak and engine trouble forced the launch to be scrubbed. The next window for launch is Friday, September 2. Artemis I is the first full test of NASA’s Space Launch System and the uncrewed Orion spacecraft, and its mission entails a forty-two-day journey that will take Orion around the moon and back. If all goes well, the agency is planning to send astronauts to the moon in 2025 for the first time since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972.

Get updates and follow the launch at nasa.gov.