KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. – NASA is now an agency made up of thousands of men and women, but when the U.S. space agency was first established 60 years ago few women were part of the workforce, much less at the helm of important roles.
Three years ago, NASA’s Kennedy Space Center made history when it named Charlie Blackwell-Thompson launch director. She’s the first woman to ever hold the position.
“It is not lost on me when I walk in this room. I am still struck with that same feeling, that same calling that I had as a young woman, to be a part of NASA’s effort, to be a part of a launch team,” Blackwell-Thompson said standing in the firing room at Kennedy Space Center.
The first time Blackwell-Thompson walked into Fire Room 1 at Launch Control was for a job interview while she was a senior at Clemson University.
“When I came here to Kennedy Space Center, and I walked in Fire Room 1, I absolutely knew that I wanted to be a part of this team,” she said.
Blackwell-Thompson landed the job more than 30 years ago and she worked her way up through varies roles that prepared her for her biggest role yet-- as launch director of the Artemis 1 mission.
"Having been given the opportunity to lead this team and to lead the planning, it was just an unbelievable opportunity," she said.
In 2016, she was offered the job by NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Director Robert Cabana and become the first woman in the history of NASA to hold that position.
“I answered the phone and he provided me the offer. I remember I stopped and said, ‘Can you repeat that?’ Because I wanted to make sure that I heard it clearly, and I heard it correctly, and I was just speechless,” the South Carolina native said.
She’ll lead the countdown when NASA launches the Artemis missions propelling the next American astronauts -- both women and men -- to the moon as soon as 2024.
“We are testing out launch capabilities today. We’re also doing what we call launch team simulations, those have already started months ago,” Blackwell-Thompson said. “And the team that’s kind of working problems behind the curtain, they surprise us with different problem scenarios. I don’t know what’s coming our team doesn’t know what’s coming and we go through just like we would do on launch day.”
As a young girl, Blackwell-Thompson said she never thought about engineering as a career and she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do. Decades later, she continues to credit a high school teacher who encouraged her to look into engineering.
“I remember when talking to him about that I said, ‘Well, what would I do as an engineer?’ and his response was, ‘Well, what couldn’t you?’ and at the time that wasn’t terribly helpful but looking back now and I think (of) how wise he was,” the mother of three said.
Her journey at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center spans more than three decades with many fulfilling moments and challenges. Blackwell-Thompson recalled the biggest challenge was juggling work and family life.
“Learning to balance in a time where we didn’t have the family-friendly policies that we have today,” she said. “That was a tough balance for me, you know, you love your children, you love your family, you love your job and it’s trying to figure out: How can I be great at both of these things that mean so much to me?"
But she never felt it was impossible and hopes today's generation is just as determined as she's been.
“My message to young folks is that if you can dream it, you can do it, you have to work for it, it has to come with hard work but there is no limit-- possibilities are boundless.”