KSC's first woman engineer laid groundwork for first female launch director

From 1 woman among sea of men to woman leading firing room

By Emilee Speck - Digital journalist

In the center of the photograph is JoAnn Morgan, the only woman engineer in the Firing Room at NASA's Kennedy Space Center on July 16, 1969. Fifty years later, the firing room will be led by the first woman launch director. (image: NASA file)

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. - Standing next to a photo taken of the launch control center July 16, 1969, the day when three men launched to the moon from Kennedy Space Center launch pad 39A, Charlie Blackwell-Thompson points out the lone woman among a sea of about 100 men.

“That's JoAnn Morgan. She is a kind of a local hero to many of us and really was instrumental in laying the groundwork for, for other women that would follow,” said Blackwell-Thompson, the first woman to lead a similar team.

As launch director, Blackwell-Thompson will oversee the countdown first launch of NASA’s astronaut capsule, the Orion spacecraft and the Space Launch System, the mission known as Artemis-1, from Kennedy Space Center launch pad 39B. The next flight, Atremis-2, will include astronauts.

Artemis-1 Launch Director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson in the firing room at Kennedy Space Center's Launch Control Center. (Image: Jeff Segers/WKMG)

NASA has rebranded the SLS and Orion program under the name Artemis for Apollo’s sister, which is fitting given the changes that have taken place across the space industry in the last half-century.

Morgan, who started in 1958 as an intern with the U.S. Army Ballistic Missile Agency,  would become the first female engineer at Kennedy Space Center, but it wasn't without challenges. There were no women's restrooms, and she often received lewd phone calls, Morgan told CNN.

During the Apollo program, Morgan was selected to be on console the day Apollo 11 launched aboard the Saturn V rocket. Morgan said ahead of the 50th anniversary of the moon landing that her director of information systems tapped her to be on console because she was the best communicator.

“Later, I found out he had to convince the center director, Dr. Kurt Debus, that it was going to be OK,” Morgan said of having a woman on console.

Roy Tharpe sat next to Morgan in the firing room as the chief test support controller for Apollo 11.

“She had the moxie of what it took to be in a position of being the only woman in the firing room for Apollo 11,” Tharpe told CNN. 

Fifty years later, Blackwell-Thompson is focused on preparing her team to oversee the countdown and launch, setting the stage for the first woman to go to the moon.

Blackwell-Thompson said she is more focused on her work than the importance of being the first woman to lead the historic KSC firing room.

“Day to day you don't think about that so much. You think about, you know, what do I have to do to get to launch? What's the work ahead of us?” she said. “But when you do stop for a moment and think about it, the first thing that comes to mind is I feel incredibly blessed and really honored.”

Hired by Boeing right after graduating from Clemson University, Blackwell-Thompson started working at Kennedy Space Center in 1988. She would go on to serve as the lead electrical engineer for multiple Hubble Space Telescope servicing missions and the ground operations integration lead engineer for the Orbital Space Plane.

When Atlantis launched for the last time in 2011, Blackwell-Thompson was in the KSC firing room- as an assistant NASA test director, where she planned and executed the last countdown that included humans as the most precious cargo on board.

The next time people launch from the Space Coast, as soon as this year, it will be with NASA’s commercial partners, Boeing, SpaceX and United Launch Alliance, followed by NASA's Artemis program to the moon and beyond.

Similar to how Blackwell-Thompson followed Morgan's footsteps, she hopes others follow hers.

“If there are young people or young girls that look at NASA's female launch director, and they say, ‘You know what? I can do that, my message right back to them is, ‘You bet you can,’” said Blackwell-Thompson.

And that photo of the firing room July 16, 1969? Blackwell-Thompson knows a similar photo taken on Artemis-1 launch day will look incredibly different.

“Our launch team is very reflective of our workforce, which is also very reflective of our country. And so there's a lot of diversity within our team,” she said. “And (when) we take that picture, you're going to see that it looks a whole lot different. And I think you'll see folks -have all different backgrounds and ages because it's a blend of experience. It's a blend of new ideas and so yes, the picture will be quite different.”

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