February 1, 2016 – The first flight of a Space Launch System (SLS) rocket carrying the Orion spacecraft on an uncrewed mission to lunar orbit and back now has its launch director. Veteran spaceflight engineer Charlie Blackwell-Thompson will helm the launch team at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida for the first flight test of a space system designed to carry astronauts into deep space before making a landmark journey to Mars.
Blackwell-Thompson’s selection as launch director means she will be the first woman to oversee a NASA liftoff and launch team.
“A couple of firsts here all make me smile,” Blackwell-Thompson said. “First launch director for the world’s most powerful rocket — that’s humbling. And I am honored to be the first female launch director at Kennedy Space Center. So many amazing women that have contributed to human space flight, and they blazed the trail for all of us. I feel extremely blessed. I also know being the launch director comes with a whole lot of responsibility. I have a healthy respect for just how important this job is.”
That first flight, known as Exploration Mission 1, or EM-1, will be an important flight test before carrying astronauts, and Blackwell-Thompson said there is no shortage of planning, simulations and adaptations ahead in the next three years as the American space agency gets ready to launch the first rocket powerful enough to enable human exploration into deep space.
“I remember when I walked into Firing Room 1 during a tour before I was hired many years ago, and one of the guys said if you take this job you will sit here at this console,” Blackwell-Thompson said. “I was amazed at even being in the firing room, and the thought of being on the launch team then was unbelievable. So take that feeling and fast forward to getting the opportunity to walk into Firing Room 1 as the launch director for the SLS/Orion vehicle; that is something very special.”
That tour led to a post with The Boeing Company as a payload flight software engineer that saw Blackwell-Thompson lead test and avionics checkouts for numerous spacecraft and systems that were later launched on the space shuttle. She joined NASA as a test director in 2004 and oversaw different aspects of the launch countdown for launches from 2005 until the shuttle fleet was retired in 2011.
A holder of numerous patents, Blackwell-Thompson has worked in NASA’s Ground Systems Development and Operations Program as launch and countdown planning has developed for the SLS and Orion systems.
Exploration Mission 1 will send an Orion spacecraft around the moon on an approximately three-week voyage that will test myriad capabilities and systems of SLS and Orion. When it lifts off on the power of two solid rocket boosters and four repurposed and upgraded main engines previously used for the space shuttles, the SLS will become one of the largest rockets to ever fly, rivalled only by the Apollo-era Saturn V. It will enable astronauts to travel on missions to explore an asteroid placed in lunar orbit and eventually deeper into space and on to Mars.
As work for the mission progresses on Orion, SLS, and the ground systems and mission support needed to launch them, NASA will identify additional key personnel who will lead and oversee the launch and execution of the mission from different NASA centers. Blackwell-Thompson will be responsible for launching the EM-1 mission from Firing Room 1 at Kennedy’s Launch Control Center, while a team of flight directors at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston will manage Orion’s mission as it ventures beyond the far side of the moon and returns to Earth.
“It’s very exciting to think that this is one of the first steps to Mars, and while Mars may be some years away, you don’t get there without the first steps,” Blackwell-Thompson said. “I find walking in the firing room is an inspiring experience and being there on launch day is even more so. To be a part of the team that is going to set SLS and Orion on a journey beyond low-Earth orbit is what I would characterize as a dream job.”
The firing room is where the countdown begins and the launch director gives the commands that keep the countdown on track and ultimately lead to a liftoff. Firing Room 1, also known as the Young-Crippen Firing Room for the first crew of the space shuttle, has long been the locale of choice for some of NASA’s iconic missions. Apollo 11’s launch was overseen from the suite, as well as the first space shuttle missions. Completely modernized from beneath the floor to above the ceiling, Firing Room 1 has been all but rebuilt for the Space Launch System and Orion. Fiber optics replaced copper, and whole computer networks designed in the 1970s were traded for a modern communications system.
As launch director, Blackwell-Thompson is responsible for making sure the rocket and spacecraft are ready for flight. Ultimately, she will make the final decision for whether the mission is “go for launch.” Her seat on the top row, closest to the angled wall of windows looking out toward Launch Pad 39B, will give her a direct view to see the SLS engines roar and the boosters lift the 32-story-tall rocket into space.
“Launch day will be a great day,” Blackwell-Thompson said. “There will be a lot of preparation, a lot of anticipation, a lot of excitement and a lot of pride in seeing it come together. I’m sure there will be a lot of excitement and nervousness in thinking about the magnitude that we’re about to do as a team.”
The launch team also will be quite a bit smaller than the one that oversaw space shuttle launches. Right now, the roster calls for 91 controllers, less than half the amount on duty for a shuttle launch.
“When we began to lay out the concept for our launch team, we looked at how other programs perform launch,” Blackwell-Thompson said. “Our approach wasn’t driven out of how to make the team smaller, but what it takes to safely launch the vehicle. Shuttle, Launch Services Program, Department of Defense and commercial launch providers were all looked at for best practices and lessons learned. We are incorporating parts of all of them into our launch approach.”
The team will include veteran controllers from space shuttle processing and launches along with many newer engineers who are approaching the chance to fly a new system with as much rigor as their experienced counterparts.
“I think we have a really healthy mix,” said Blackwell-Thompson. “We have a good foundation of folks that have launch countdown experience. That is a tremendous asset to us as we begin to build the launch team. We also have some new folks that bring a new perspective. I think that’s very important because you don’t get anchored into the way you’ve always done it. You want to make sure you balance experience with new and fresh ideas.”
The firing room and its host of monitors and arsenal of computing power will be the hub of processing activity throughout the preparations for the rocket and Orion spacecraft as they go through batteries of testing at Kennedy.
“Anytime you do something for the first time, you learn things and face challenges. We will have some challenges, and we will learn from them,” Blackwell-Thompson said. “I’m fully confident in the team’s ability to work through issues and find innovative solutions. Solving problems is part of what we do.”
The preparation is not solely focused on the hardware of spaceflight. The controllers and launch team as a whole can expect the next couple of years to be full of intense examinations of procedures and then simulations and plenty of adjustments. From there, the goal is to be ready for whatever happens.
“It’s all in your preparation,” Blackwell-Thompson said. “You train the way you fly. You go over all your nominal operations, your contingency operations, you understand your launch commit criteria, and in the cool of the day you lay out those contingencies and you figure out how you’re going to traverse them. To me, it’s the work you do up front that prepares you for what you have to do under pressure.”
Expecting to tuck a few good luck charms from her kids in her pocket on launch day, Blackwell-Thompson said she will take the most pride in seeing how her corps of launch engineers works through the countdown and overcomes hurdles to send the SLS into the sky and set the Orion spacecraft on a major voyage.
“It’s not about the work of one; it is about the accomplishment of the team and the incredible things that can be achieved when we’re working together toward the same goal,” Blackwell-Thompson said. “Those are the stories I tell around the dinner table. Times when you’re told that it can’t be done or that the schedule can’t be met. I’ve seen the team rise to meet so many challenges and make the difficult look easy. To me, that’s the part of the job that is most rewarding: it’s great to see our team in action.”