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From Apollo to Artemis: The woman putting boots back on the moon

Charlie Blackwell-Thompson has worked on countless rocket launches, but as NASA's Artemis launch director, she's finally helping to put the first woman on the moon.

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Charlie Blackwell-Thompson during a countdown demonstration in Firing Room 1 at the Kennedy Space Center.

Kim Shiflett/NASA

In 2024, more than half a century after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, NASA is planning to send humans back to the lunar surface. It's the first crewed mission to the moon since the Apollo program ended in the early '70s. And for the first time, a woman will be on board. 

The mission is part of NASA's Artemis program and represents an historic moment in space exploration. The program will see NASA focusing on human spaceflight beyond low-Earth orbit and the International Space Station, partnering with private companies to make missions more sustainable and building a gateway in lunar orbit to act as an outpost for further exploration in deep space. 

But unlike the Apollo 11 launch in the late '60s, when NASA sends a woman to the moon, women will help get her there. And leading the way will be Charlie Blackwell-Thompson, NASA's first female launch director and the woman responsible for launching Artemis to the moon. 

Blackwell-Thompson has been working on launches at the Kennedy Space Center since 1988, when she started as a payload flight software engineer for the Boeing Company, fresh out of college. She worked on countless Space Shuttle launches, readying software and avionics systems on payloads that were sent into space across missions that would span more than two decades.

After joining NASA in 2004, Blackwell-Thompson rose through the ranks on the launch team, working as a test director and helping to run the final polls before launch -- the "go or no-go" moment when the spacecraft on the launchpad was cleared for flight. 

But now, in her new role as Artemis launch director, Blackwell-Thompson is running the show. She's responsible for planning and executing the launch countdown -- all the technical steps that need to be met to get the Artemis mission ready to fly. From the initial launch of the countdown, two days before launch, down to the final polls in the final minutes and seconds before "T-zero" when the rocket lifts off.

"There's something really special about T-Zero day," Blackwell-Thompson says. "Coming into the control center on that day, you walk in and you can feel it in the atmosphere in the room. There's a certain electricity."

The control center is always a hive of activity as the team works through the pre-launch checklist, configuring launch systems, preparing the spacecraft and going through the process of "tanking," when the rocket is loaded with cryogenic propellant. But as T-Zero approaches, Blackwell-Thompson says the atmosphere shifts. 

"As you get into what we call 'terminal count' -- where you're going through your final polls and your go/no-goes, and ensuring that you're ready to go as you get into those final milestones of launch countdown -- the room gets incredibly quiet.

"And as you get down inside of a minute, it is absolutely quiet. And you could hear a pin drop."

In Episode 6 of Making Space: The Female Frontier, we learn all about NASA's next mission to the moon from the woman who will help make it happen. From the emergency sequences that are hard-wired into her brain, to the atmosphere in the firing room and why Artemis is a mission unlike any other -- Blackwell-Thompson talks about how NASA is realizing its goal of getting the first woman and the next man on the moon and why history is being made. 

You can listen to the episode in the player at the top of this story. Or search for Making Space: The Female Frontier in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever you listen.