Starting at 5 p.m. ET Friday, NASA began the final big test of the rocket that will be kicking off the Artemis program, a wide-ranging effort to bring humans back to the moon.
What You Need To Know
- Charlie Blackwell-Thompson was named launch director at KSC in 2016
- Exploration Ground Services oversees the logistics surrounding the launches for the Artemis program
- Artemis I is targeting launch no earlier than June
The Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion crew capsule will go through roughly 45 hours and 40 minutes of a continuous testing collectively known as the wet dress rehearsal. The test at Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39B is highlighted by the loading of the liquid propellants for the rocket, oxygen and hydrogen.
Overseeing this historic undertaking is Charlie Blackwell-Thompson. The Clemson University graduate got her start in the space industry shortly after leaving college, beginning at KSC in 1988 as a payload flight software engineer for the Boeing Company.
She joined the NASA side of the center in 2004 as the test director in the Launch and Landing Division. More than 30 years later, she still vividly remembers taking a tour of the firing room as a college senior.
“I walked into firing room one and was amazed at the work that the team was doing,” Blackwell-Thompson said. “That same young woman who thought ‘How do I get a spot in this room?’ And I look at the path that has led me to where I am today and the only words that come to mind is just, what a blessing.”
Stepping into a legacy
After earning the position of launch director in the Exploration Ground Services department at KSC in 2016, Blackwell-Thompson spent her time helping to lead the Florida team to prepare for the first launch of the SLS rocket and Orion crew capsule.
She spoke with Spectrum News 13 from the lobby of the newly renamed Rocco A. Petrone Launch Control Center shortly before the SLS rolled out to LC-39B for the first time on March 17.
The open space features a wall of mission patches honoring human spaceflight stretching from the Apollo era through the Artemis program. The opposite side features models of the Saturn V, Space Shuttle and a mini SLS rocket next to a model of the Vehicle Assembly building.
A Shuttle-era control console sits in the middle of the room. Its analog systems give those who come in a tangible time to a bygone era in spaceflight.
Blackwell-Thompson said the system now is much sleeker and features several large screens, but does miss some of the charm of this tactile system.
“I loved the fact that I could reach over easily and turn the knobs and adjust the volume," she said. "Or you see this ‘active and monitor’ button? So, if you wanted to change from being able to listen to being able to talk, you could very easily just go and hit those buttons."
Adorning the columns in the middle of the room is a timeline of impactful launch directors throughout KSC history, like Rocco Petrone, George Page, Bob Sieck and Michael Leinbach. Blackwell-Thompson is the first female launch director.
Just beyond the column with her picture, there’s a poster of the modern-day firing room, fully staffed with the words “Inspire the Fire” in bold letters. Blackwell-Thompson said the phrase was chosen for it's dual meaning.
“It’s about the work of our team. It’s about working toward a goal. It’s about getting there. But it’s also about inspiring the next generation,” Blackwell-Thompson said. “The places we want to go and the things we want to accomplish are not accomplished by a single team, but they are a team that is followed by another team that is followed by generations.”
“So, to me, ‘Inspire the Fire’ is about meeting the goal that’s in front of us. It’s about getting to that Artemis I launch day, which is going to be so exciting. It’s about first steps on the Moon by the first woman and the first person of color. It’s about where do we go next.”
Inspire the Fire
The next steps for the Artemis I mission are to complete the roughly two-day wet dress rehearsal test.
Crews were called to stations at 5 p.m. ET to begin the series, which begins with filling the water tank for the sound suppression system and powering up the Orion spacecraft.
The suppression system won’t be needed for this test since the four RS-25 engines and two solid rocket boosters won’t be fired during this test. However, the crews are going through the full run-through to simulate the actual countdown process that will take place leading to launch day.
During a pre-wet dress teleconference with members of the press, Tom Whitmeyer, the deputy associate administrator for the Common Exploration Systems Division at NASA said that a launch date for the Artemis I mission would be determined around a week following wet dress.
“A launch in particular is a high-visibility event. A lot of people set their calendars for it. So, we’re being very careful not to just throw dates out there and then have to come back and tell you Monday that really wasn’t the right day,” Whitmeyer said.
The mission, years in the making, is currently targeting no earlier than June to blast off on its lunar mission. NASA officials previously said that the June launch window lasts from June 6-16. The next window of opportunity runs from June 29 through July 12, with a carve-out for July 2-4.
While the world waits for the first launch of the Artemis program, Blackwell-Thompson is also thinking about putting her spin on a time-honored tradition.
Typically, following Space Shuttle launches, the crew working in the LCC would meet in the lobby to share a meal consisting of beans, cornbread and hot sauce. The tradition was started by former Chief Test Director Norm Carlson and it lasted through all 135 Space Shuttle missions.
“I haven’t decided what our post-launch celebration food will be. Certainly, we will leverage the tradition that has been set during the Shuttle program,” Blackwell-Thompson said. “I don’t know if we’ve quite settled on what the food will be, but I can guarantee this: we’ll be right here in this lobby and we’ll be celebrating together.”