When Chris Cianciola thinks about the Space Launch System rocket, it is not metal or steel or the roar of engines that most concerns him, it is the astronauts that will ride the rocket to space. As a child, his parents took him to see a Saturn V launch in 1969 that sent Apollo 11 astronauts to land on the Moon for the first time. That was the beginning of his fascination with space that led him to a long career evaluating how to build and operate space vehicles, so they safely send crews to space and return them to Earth.
Cianciola is the deputy manager for the SLS Program at Marshall Space Flight Center. He shares responsibility for all facets of the program, including programmatic and technical planning, procurement, development, testing, evaluation, production and operations. A 20-year NASA veteran, Cianciola’s previous roles at Marshall include SLS chief safety officer, International Space Station Program manager for Payload Operations, and key positions in the space shuttle’s Reusable Solid Rocket Booster and External Tank projects.
Now he leads the team focused on every aspect of building the world’s most powerful rocket that will send astronauts on missions to the Moon.
“Both on the space station and space shuttle, I have seen what astronauts can achieve while working in space, and how the NASA team on Earth helps them be successful in space,” he said. “I am honored to lead a team building a rocket that will send humans to the Moon on the Artemis missions.”
Question: How do you encourage teamwork, collaboration, and integration, especially in this unprecedented telework environment?
Cianciola: It was important to let our people know that keeping them safe was our top priority. We’ve had regular all-hands meetings with the entire SLS team. For some of these, we invited experts from the community to discuss what they knew about the pandemic and best practices for staying safe and keeping families safe. Despite the pandemic and six hurricanes and tropical storms that hit SLS test facilities in Mississippi, the SLS team accomplished two major test campaigns over the course of the last year – our structural testing at Marshall and the core stage Green Run test at Stennis. This required immense collaboration by our team including teammates at other NASA centers and industry partners across America. To accomplish work needed to launch the Artemis I mission to the Moon, we developed plans to conduct the most critical work safely on-site at NASA facilities. These had to be approved by the center and NASA headquarters. To stay on track and address any issues, we added several weekly virtual meetings with the SLS element managers and prime contractors. This provided regular forums to communicate often and address issues quickly.
Question: How are you managing your personal and your team’s work-life balance, especially now, more than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic?
Cianciola: I have been amazed at what we have accomplished in this environment. I can’t believe that even while working from home, this team gets all the critical work done on time. Now that we’ve completed our major test campaigns and delivered the core stage to Kennedy Space Center, we are encouraging people to make time to take vacations and spend times with their families. This year as we move toward the Artemis I launch, the workload is going to continue to be demanding, so it is important for people to take some time for themselves and recharge.
Question: How does your team honor and demonstrate NASA’s commitment to creating a diverse and inclusive environment where team members are valued for their unique contributions?
Cianciola: Building a 21st-century rocket requires a 21st-century team that is diverse. One aspect that I have particularly enjoyed is being able to mentor young rocket engineers from diverse backgrounds. Some of our managers started their careers during the Space Shuttle Program and at the beginning of the International Space Station Program. A few of our managers were even mentored by Saturn engineers at the end of their careers. The SLS Program has given us the opportunity to train a whole new generation of engineers. We’ve created a work environment where we want these engineers to speak up if they have novel ideas that can improve our processes and program. Some young engineers on our team have followed the SLS core stage from Michoud Assembly Facility where it was built to Stennis where it was Green Run tested to Kennedy where it was recently stacked for Artemis I. As we build SLS rockets, we are training the Artemis Generation that will lead the next era of deep space exploration.
Question: What key partnerships are your team pursuing to help NASA build and develop a sustainable presence on the Moon? Help push the boundaries of science, technology, and/or human exploration?
Cianciola: To explore space in a sustainable way, you need a super heavy-lift rocket like SLS. No other rocket has the performance to send the Orion spacecraft, astronauts, and supplies to the Moon on a single mission. SLS is the backbone of the Artemis missions, and our team is moving from a development phase to a production phase for the rocket. The team is currently building rockets for use beyond Artemis V. Both NASA and our prime contractors learned many lessons while building the first heavy-lift launch vehicle since the development of the Saturn V rocket in the 1960s. The 212-foot core stage was the newest part of the rocket, and we are using lessons learned from building the first one to build core stages about 40% faster. We now have core stages under production for Artemis II, III and IV. We had 16 RS-25 engines from the shuttle that we upgraded for SLS. Now, we are working with our prime contractor to produce those engines with modern manufacturing techniques that will lower the cost by up to 50%. And as we look to the future, we have already started building the Exploration Upper Stage that will allow SLS to send 40% more payload to the Moon than our initial SLS configuration. SLS provides the capabilities for us to transport both people and payload to the Moon and beyond, allowing America to push the boundaries of science, technology, and deep space exploration.
Question: Why do you think your team is successful at staying mission-focused?
Cianciola: The Artemis missions to the Moon are a historic endeavor like none attempted since the Apollo Program. The last time humans walked on the Moon was 1972. Our team stays focused by realizing the historic importance of what we are doing for America. When I talk to people across the team, they understand and are excited about building the world’s most powerful rocket and the capability it provides for NASA to do missions on the Moon and in deep space. When you have a goal that grand, it is easy to stay focused on the mission.
Editor’s note: Tracy McMahan is a public affairs officer in Marshall’s Office of Strategic Analysis & Communications.