The People of Artemis: Chris Cianciola, NASA Space Launch System deputy manager
KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — At last month’s rollout of NASA’s Artemis 1 Space Launch System (SLS) moon rocket, Spaceflight Insider had the opportunity to speak with a number of people involved in its design, construction, assembly, and flight — The People of Artemis.
One of those people is Chris Cianciola, NASA’s SLS deputy program manager, who is based at the agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
Cianciola grew up in Memphis, Tennessee. He obtained his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the University of Mississippi and his master’s in administrative science from the University of Alabama in Huntsville. He lives in Huntsville with his wife, Lanell. They have two children.
Cianciola moved to Huntsville in 1983 and took a job with Teledyne Brown Engineering building a cleanroom facility used for the construction of space shuttle payloads.
He’s been with NASA since 2000, and with the SLS program for a little more than five years. He was appointed to his current position in 2018 and works for SLS Program Manager John Honeycutt.
Cianciola’s interest in the space program began at an early age.
“I remember as a kid, as like a six-year-old, we would huddle around the TV and watch them pluck these capsules out of the ocean,” Cianciola said. “That was the biggest, the most exciting, thing for me. I was just fascinated by the splashdown and seeing the helicopters retrieve them.”
He later attended the Apollo 11 launch.
“I’m 62, so that would have put me about ten years old, nine years old,” Cianciola said. “The family planned a vacation around it. We spent, probably a few days, a week, half a week, in Panama City. And then we got up early in the morning and finished the drive. We pulled into Titusville, in our station wagon,” and watched the launch.
We asked Cianciola about his role as SLS deputy program manager.
“My boss assigned me to go down to [the] Michoud [Assembly Facility in New Orleans, Louisiana,] in 2019. I spent the last year in the factory, with the rocket [(Artemis 1 SLS core stage)] every day,” he said. “I live in Huntsville, but I had a temporary place there for about a year . . . . We were building the rocket in a government facility, with a contractor operating it, and just wanting to make sure all those things came together and worked. It was the first time, I mean it was the first time through, for the integrated vehicle.”
“I spent my time down there, in ’19, and that was impressive,” Cianciola said. “And we rolled out in . . . January [of 2020], put it on the barge and took it over to Stennis [Space Center in south Mississippi]. Then our world was disrupted [by COVID-19] during all that, and to make life harder, we locked the doors, the government locked the doors until we could understand what was going on.”
The core stage made the trip from Michoud to Stennis so that it could be lifted into the B-2 Test Stand for “Green Run” testing of the stage and its four RS-25 engines.
“We figured out how to get back to work, and we went through our Green Run test of the core stage, which was really . . . the single biggest test, in my mind, for everything we’re doing here,” Cianciola said. “We’ve got a new stage, with some proving engines, that have been modified from the shuttle to fly SLS, and you get that to work. That just worked like a charm. We got some good learning there.”
However, NASA needed two attempts, one on January 16, 2021, and another on March 18, 2021, to achieve all of its Green Run testing goals.
“We got a limit cut on us during the first test . . . relative to performance of the gimbal system / thrust vector control,” he added. “The limit was the pressure of the system that drives that. There’s a hydraulic system. That was the one that was out of the box for us. And it turned out that we actually learned . . . it’s hard to vector, obviously, when you have the load on that nozzle. It was the first time we had them going all together like that.”
“What you saw during the full duration test, our second Green Run, you saw some really, really hard-driving of the nozzles,” Cianciola said. “And something this vehicle will never see again. And we’ll probably never need.”
We then asked about Artemis 1 SLS work leading up to the rollout.
“The last two weeks have been minor things, as we’re going through the backout and somebody says does that look right or no, and [we’ve] got to go back and check it to make sure it was right,” Cianciola explained. “So, it’s the final eyeball[ing], touching, when we have, especially in the engine section (and the engine section is the volume right above the RS-25s) . . . . That’s really where the majority of our subsystems are for the rocket . . . . And just making sure those are right, and having all the people in place to make sure all that was correct.”
“And if something is out of spec, or out of tolerance, then we would go through our whole assessment of checking it and say all right, do we need to do anything or not, is it right or not, and get it back into configuration,” he continued. “We might find something like . . . the lockwire’s broke, we secure a bolt as a secondary locking feature, those kinds of things.”
And what would we have seen had we “shadowed” him for the past few days?
“This time, we came down Sunday [, March 13],” Cianciola said. “We were doing some long-range planning for future missions, and how we’re going to come together. This one is in really good shape. This week, our biggest deal, coming into this week, was what we call our close-outs, as we were backing out of the volumes inside the rocket, the engine section, intertank, forward skirt, and the ICPS [(Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage)] inside the LVSA [(Launch Vehicle Stage Adapter)].”
“We have access platforms so we can work in there, and make sure everything is hooked up right and tested, and we’re taking out platforms,” he continued. “The last few weeks we’ve been taking out platforms and getting to the point where it’s basically in a flight configuration, and put the doors on, and do all of our final inspections before that happened. That what, that’s really what this vehicle has been doing. When we got down here Monday [, March 14], our platforms were already halfway retracted, from the top to the bottom, and then we’ve been working our way out.”
Lastly, we asked Cianciola how it feels to finally get to the first SLS rollout.
“It’s really awesome,” Cianciola said. “What gets me, from my standpoint, is I’ve planned for this day and trying to get here for a long time. I’m good. I’ve been seeing the work volume working its way down to this level, so I’m like, cool, calm and relaxed, cause I know we’re in great shape. But when I get out in the community, and everybody around that I work with, that haven’t been down here, they’re just pumped and excited. I feel like I’m at the end of a marathon.”
“I was thinking about it today when I was driving in,” he added. “I drove in from Cocoa today, came through the Air Force [(now Space Force)] gate, and from there, about 10 or 12 miles, looked up and [the Vehicle Assembly Building is] huge. You can see the top of it. I go, man, you’re going to be able to see this rocket from the whole Space Coast.”
Stay tuned to Spaceflight Insider for more on the people of Artemis.
Scott earned both a Bachelor's Degree in public administration, and a law degree, from Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. He currently practices law in the Birmingham suburb of Homewood. Scott first remembers visiting Marshall Space Flight Center in 1978 to get an up-close look at the first orbiter, Enterprise, which had been transported to Huntsville for dynamic testing. More recently, in 2006, he participated in an effort at the United States Space and Rocket Center (USSRC) to restore the long-neglected Skylab 1-G Trainer. This led to a volunteer position, with the USSRC curator, where he worked for several years maintaining exhibits and archival material, including flown space hardware. Scott attended the STS - 110, 116 and 135 shuttle launches, along with Ares I-X, Atlas V MSL and Delta IV NROL-15 launches. More recently, he covered the Atlas V SBIRS GEO-2 and MAVEN launches, along with the Antares ORB-1, SpaceX CRS-3, and Orion EFT-1 launches.