Picture it — the new space suits worn by NASA astronauts in the Artemis moon mission could include purple and orange lanyards. Well, that might be a longshot, but it’s actually just a tiny bit conceivable, if you know the top women in leadership.
Two South Carolina women — among the very best in their field worldwide — are key leaders of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s latest moon mission. Charlie Blackwell-Thompson, a Gaffney native, is the first female to be named launch director for NASA’s John F. Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Vanessa Wyche, originally from Conway, is the first African-American woman to serve as director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Texas. They both just happen to be aerospace trailblazers notable enough to have their own Wikipedia pages as well.
Oh, and they’re both Clemson graduates. Together, the two are vital team members for the Artemis Mission, NASA’s first initiative to return humans to the moon in more than 50 years. “If you think about the Apollo missions to the moon in 1969, three men, the first humans on the lunar surface, collected lunar samples. Now, with the technology we have, we know that the capability exists to mine the moon for water and other materials so we can live there. We want to establish a sustainable place on the moon and build a small infrastructure,” Vanessa says. “This will be the first time women and people of color will go to the moon. Our Artemis cadre is very diverse.”
This time around, with advanced technology, new tools and instruments will be used to test the limits of moon settlement. Astronauts also will have highly advanced space suits with sophisticated life support functions that they did not have decades ago.
Implemented in phases, Artemis ultimately is challenged with determining how humans might colonize the moon, extract vital resources, and ultimately explore deep space, including Mars. The unmanned Artemis I launched on Nov. 16, 2022, following multiple delays. It was a critical test flight for NASA’s powerful new mega-moon rocket and Orion spacecraft. After circling the moon, the space capsule, called Orion, returned to Earth 25 days later. “After the first two Artemis I launches were called off, emotions were mixed. But we have done this before. We know the conditions that we need to meet to satisfy the needs of this mission,” Charlie says. “We have all those rules in place for a reason. We have done all the thinking ahead of time. We follow the data.”
Indeed. Dozens of simulations are conducted before a launch. NASA teams go through all possible contingencies. Both Charlie and Vanessa remember well the Challenger and Columbia Space Shuttle tragedies in 1986 and 2003, respectively. Ensuring safety and mission integrity are paramount. Accordingly, the primary objective of Artemis I was to test and confirm that a safe launch, orbit, splashdown, and recovery could be achieved.
Artemis II will be a 10-day manned test flight, tentatively planned for late 2024. A four-person crew, to be named later this year from a cohort of 18 mission-qualified astronauts, will conduct a series of comprehensive tests while in orbit. Without landing on the lunar surface, it will bring humans around the moon for the first time since 1972. Artemis III could commence by 2025, depending on the success of its preceding missions. It will land humans on the lunar surface to explore the region near the lunar South Pole. NASA is planning up to five Artemis missions in this series. “We also will be working with international partners and commercial industry to mine for precious metals and other things. We will be doing that together, establishing a ‘lunar economy,’” Vanessa says.
The Origins of Female Excellence
Both Charlie and Vanessa ascended to international stature from humble beginnings in the Palmetto State.
Charlie was raised in the rural hamlet of Gaffney, known for its iconic peach water tower and folksy moniker, “Peach Capital of South Carolina.” She attended Gaffney High School, where a physics teacher, Doc Wilson, encouraged her to consider engineering as a career choice. After graduating, she enrolled at Clemson University to earn her bachelor’s degree in computer engineering.
Vanessa grew up in Conway near Myrtle Beach. At Conway High School, she excelled at biology. Her teacher, Pat Lane, took notice of her natural talent and scientific curiosity. The teacher’s assurance to Vanessa that she actually could make a living in a scientific field was instrumental in her choice to major in biochemistry, later switching to engineering, at Clemson, where she earned her bachelor’s degree. She went on to earn a master’s in bioengineering, also from Clemson.
“Both of my parents were educators. We always had encyclopedias at home. I tell my son that encyclopedias were Google before Google!” she says. “As a young kid, I loved to explore and figure things out. I always had a very curious mind. My father encouraged all of us kids to expand our horizons.”
A job interview at Boeing in her senior year at Clemson proved pivotal for Charlie as it took place at the Kennedy Space Center, where Boeing had a contract to conduct launch testing. “I can remember it like it was yesterday,” she says. “After the interview, I took a tour of the Kennedy Space Center and Firing Room 1. I saw the most amazing things. What most struck me was how big everything was. I was like a kid at Christmas. I was mesmerized by the enormity of the vehicles (space shuttles). They were testing the Space Shuttle Discovery. I didn’t know exactly what they were doing, but I got to put on a headset and hear the technicians talking to one another.”
In 1988, right after graduating from Clemson, Charlie went to work with Boeing as a payload flight software engineer. It was a full-circle moment realized in a span of about 12 months. “When I interviewed, I remember being shown a seat in the Control Center. They pointed to it and said, ‘On launch day, you could be part of it all,’” Charlie says. “I knew in that moment that I wanted to sit in that seat one day. I really wanted to be part of the team.”
In 2004, Charlie went to work for NASA as a test director, ascending the ranks to chief test director, assistant launch director, and chief of launch and landing until the Space Shuttle Program ended. Named launch director in 2016, Charlie supervises multiple teams of more than 150 engineers, technicians, and other staff. She is responsible for managing countdown plans, launch and scrub procedures, schedules, training approaches, and, of course, making the critical call to “Go for Launch!” She admits it is one of her favorite moments of the launch process that still gives her goosebumps.
Vanessa joined NASA in 1989, at first working to develop biomedical hardware for space flight. During those years, she also developed hardware for Russia’s Mir Space Station and trained astronauts for a variety of missions. She was a critical member of the team that built the International Space Station. Each job she had at NASA led to additional leadership roles over the years before she was named deputy launch director at Johnson in 2018. She became the first female African-American director of the Johnson Space Center in 2021, overseeing more than 10,000 civilian employees and directing the commercial launches of private aerospace companies such as SpaceX.
One day, Vanessa was touring the Launch Control Center at Kennedy when she caught a glimpse of the familiar purple and orange colors of a Clemson University lanyard hanging from Charlie’s neck. It was an instant connection. Although the two did not know each other while studying at Clemson, they both carry with them a lifelong bond of Tiger pride. “I had met Vanessa a couple of times, but I had no idea there was a Clemson connection until that day at Kennedy when she saw my Clemson lanyard. She was wearing our school colors,” Charlie says. “We started talking. I have known her for a long time now.”
“I still wear orange quite often,” Vanessa says. “Everybody knows that I am a Clemson Tiger.” Both women also rose through the ranks as working mothers, and both recognize they could not have the demanding careers they have today without a great support system.
“I have three amazing kids,” Charlie says. “It is a balance. I was blessed to have a grandmother who was wonderful with children. She had a gift. When they were little, I would always call her up and ask her questions. I also had my mom and aunt. It was a great circle of women to give support. But it’s also a partnership at home. My husband is so good. If I didn’t have that support system, it wouldn’t have been possible.”
Vanessa’s son followed his mother into the Boy Scouts of America. A previous Scout leader at church, she enjoys helping young people become Eagle Scouts. “I was fortunate that I had my parents as role models. They shared duties,” she says. “When I had my son, I did what I had to do. My husband and I switched duties — you figure it out. I was working with the shuttle program mostly at night, so he dropped our son at school, and I picked him up after school. You have to have a partner who will share those responsibilities. When we moved to Houston, my in-laws also helped out a lot.”
Reflecting on motherhood, Charlie adds that it’s essential to figure out priorities. “I call them the ‘must-dos.’ There are things I can delegate when I need help,” she says. “An example, I always make the kids’ lunches. It was just one of those things I had to do. And my daughter started playing basketball in middle school and high school. Attending her games was a must-do. I didn’t schedule a meeting after 5 p.m. on game days. Other stuff you just have to let go.”
Shearing the Necktie
A proud and longstanding tradition at NASA on the occasion of a launch director’s first launch is for the manager to cut his or her necktie. After Artemis I successfully launched in November 2022, Charlie donned the traditional men’s neckwear for the ceremonial snipping. She is proud to be in this position. “What we do today sets the stage to get us to that next destination — and with a diverse team,” she says.
Vanessa remembers growing up with a father who, as a teacher, made sure that girls learned to be independent and have confidence that they had the same abilities as boys. “It’s about everybody having an opportunity, everybody having the access and ability to follow their dreams,” she says. “I just finished a fellowship with the International Women’s Forum. I got to meet women from all around the world building each other up and having a network of support. My mentors have been mostly men, but they shared all their knowledge, so I feel very much obligated to mentor and pay it forward.”
Both the Johnson and Kennedy space centers have organized mentoring programs to which Charlie and Vanessa contribute their time and talent. “One of my favorite aspects about my job is the ability to talk to young women and mentor them,” Charlie says. “I am a champion for women. For everything you give, you get so much in return.”
She adds that all the women who now work at the Kennedy Launch Control Center gather regularly to participate in a team photo and to talk and build camaraderie. “NASA wants us to be engaged and do outreach in the community. That is a real gift to me as part of this job.”