Mike Ciannilli with Columbia

Mike Ciannilli with his long-time charge, the orbiter Columbia (Credits: Mike Ciannilli).

On February 1, 2003, Mike Ciannilli was a contractor for NASA. He worked as a test project engineer, responsible for the engineering systems coming together in the firing room. He was assigned to Space Shuttle Columbia, which seemed fitting somehow. Ciannilli had a long love affair with Columbia, dating from his middle school days, when he made a replica of the ship for his school science fair. At the time of the ill-fated STS-107 mission, he was monitoring issues during processing flow in the turnaround between landing and launch and he manned the launch countdown. When he talks about listening to your vehicle, it’s clear he still hears the rumbles and creaks of Columbia, a decade after she disintegrated before his and everyone’s eyes.

The Search

Mid-February 2003 found Ciannilli in the middle of Texas, overflying Columbia’s final flight path again and again. His job was to look out the helicopter doors, watching for signs of anything that might be a piece of the shuttle. When he spotted something promising, the copter would land while he attempted to identify the bit, bringing it aboard if it looked to be a likely match. “We’d do our initial identification, put it on board, and then launch up again. It was a lot of long days, flying every single day, for weeks on end.”

He was far from alone on this search. “We had to pull off what in the end was the largest search in American history,” Ciannilli says, describing the 420x16km stretch that comprised Columbia’s flight path. If it wasn’t for the “thousands of volunteers – the American Indian tribes, volunteer firefighters and policemen, and everyday people that came down,” he says, with something of wonder still in his voice, the job would have been nearly impossible. Ciannilli’s respect for those volunteers is palpable: “These folks came on buses from around the country, lived in tents in freezing rain conditions. They worked twelve hour plus days through very, very rough conditions and then their reward at night was to sleep in a small tent in freezing rain.” Ciannilli describes how incredible it was to interact with these volunteers, who simply felt that this was something they owed to their country. “And these folks did it with a smile, you’d walk around they’d be thanking you for the experience.”

Walking the Columbia recovery grid

Members of a US Forest Service team walk a Columbia recovery search grid (Credits: NASA).

When you wonder if space really matters to people, Ciannilli says, think of these volunteers. “When you see these folks come down and put their life on hold to help out the nation’s space program, it becomes very real what space means to people.”

“It was an extremely bittersweet emotional experience,” says Ciannilli, “I never want to have to do it again, but you can’t imagine not living through the experience because of the amazing people that you met and the amazing spirit of those people. They wanted to bring Columbia home.”

After several weeks, Ciannilli became the Air Operations lead: “I was helping organize the flights at that point and trying to coordinate the scheduling.” They did not finish the search until May 2003, nearly four months after the accident. By the time he got back to Cape Canaveral, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board was well on its way to producing what is now known as the CAIB Report. It is still one of the defining accident reports of modern spaceflight, what Ciannilli describes as “an awesome tool,” one he recommends everyone, especially anyone involved in spaceflight, read and reread.

– In the video below, a feature about the search and recovery of Columbia debris.

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Curating the Remains

While Ciannilli, his colleagues, and volunteers were out hunting for pieces, a reconstruction team was hard at work at the shuttle landing facility, trying to figure out where those pieces fit. “They were reconstructing Columbia as best they could and they did a really amazing job of putting her back together,” says Ciannilli. When the CAIB Report was delivered to US President Bush in August 2003, the remains of Columbia were turned over to NASA, who moved them from the shuttle hangar to the Vehicle Assembly Building.

Four years later, Ciannilli gained custody of Columbia when he was appointed Project Manager of the Columbia Research and Preservation Office. “It was and is humbling,” he says. “Columbia was always personally very special to me.”

Columbia debris spread across 700,000 acres

The debris field in East Texas spread over 5,179 sq. km. The search covered 700,000 acres (Source: CAIB Report, p 45).

Managing the office gives Ciannilli something of a pulpit from which to deliver the message of Columbia. He recently convinced NASA to require all new co-ops and employees at Kennedy Space Center to tour the Columbia Office “I’m a huge believer in know your history, remember your history, and understand your history. I think you really need to educate your folks on the reality of what happened.”

He’s also proud of the work the office is able to do in helping to continue research based on the shuttle. The office has an active loan program that allows researchers to borrow artifacts for study. “It’s really interesting because they’ll take a look at a piece and you can watch the wheels turning. They can see so much into it.” The office also works with educational institutions: “A university or a high school can apply to have a piece of Columbia sent to them and they can use it in the classroom for an engineering forensics class or engineering analysis class. Hopefully it inspires the younger folks to study and have Columbia be the catalyst to help that conversation.”

Listening to Your Vehicle

The discussion turns to the lessons learned from Columbia, and for a moment Ciannilli seems not to know where to start. “There’s a bunch,” he says, and proceeds to list some of the big ones: keep your models and tools up to date, understand your materials, guard against the off-nominal becoming normal, continually question and revalidate your design, and of course, institute a culture of open communication. But one thing that Ciannilli comes back to again and again is listening to your vehicle.

Ciannilli searches for Columbia debris by helicopter

Mike Ciannilli in back of a helicopter during Columbia aerial search operations in Texas (Credits: Mike Ciannilli).

“People say that the vehicles become alive. They become personalities,” explains Ciannilli. “I can tell you how Atlantis behaves and how Columbia starts up in the morning.” These quirks, much like those you might be familiar with from your family automobile, can provide important clues to changes in spacecraft behavior – clues that may not be present in more formal types of data. “The vehicle’s talking to you, the hardware’s talking to you – listen to it,” urges Ciannilli. “Things are happening and they often start as very small things. Understand what’s happening.” He specifically notes the issues shuttle managers faced relating to tile incidents. “Even the last few years, we didn’t really understand carbon-carbon, its strengths and its weaknesses.” Accepting tile incidents as normal without understanding the source of the incidents was a clear pre-Columbia failure.

Ciannilli gets animated when he describes what the shuttle program could have been like had the Columbia accident never occurred. “Our plan was to fly space shuttle to 2020 or 2025 even,” he says, describing the extension program and the upgrades to cockpit, engines, instrumentation, computers, GPS, and “a whole host of systems,” that were already underway at the beginning of 2003. Even after the accident, technically the shuttles were in excellent condition, possibly the best they’d ever been. “The incidents between flows were being significantly reduced, the crews were reporting on orbit the vehicles were performing better and better every flight,” Ciannilli recalls. But political winds blew NASA down a different path.

“For 30 years we had a tremendous database.” Ciannilli notes with pride. Unfortunately, that database moves to the shelf now, as new vehicles come in with quirks and personalities yet to be discovered. In some ways, new vehicles can advance safety systems, with enhanced opportunities for designing in safety factors that cannot be retrofitted to an existing vehicle. But in other ways, the loss of familiarity can be a stumbling block. “It’s kind of like buying a new car,” explains Ciannilli.” You’re gonna have new features and you don’t know how it’s going to perform.”

“But,” he says, “you can never keep flying the same vehicle forever.”

Columbia recovery volunteers camp in a warehouse

Recovery volunteers camp in a warehouse in Texas after a day of searching for debris (Credits: NASA).

Standing up to Say Something’s Wrong

Ciannilli observed clear changes in NASA’s communication culture following release of the CAIB report. “After the accident it definitely improved a lot and I think it got better as time went on after the accident – more improvements were put in place and the culture was established,” he recounts. But, he says, that fear of standing up to say something is wrong will never go away entirely.

“It’s human nature,” says Ciannilli. “If you’re going to a flight readiness review, a launch readiness review, any kind of environment it’s gonna be difficult at times for folks to come forward.”

That’s where Ciannilli hopes the memory of Columbia can help. “I say this at the end of every tour I give of the Columbia room: if you’re ever sitting at a flight readiness review, or a launch readiness review, or anything and you have that feeling in your stomach, you feel there’s something not right… If you ever need that courage, think back to this room. Think back to your time here with Columbia. And that might be the one little extra piece of encouragement that will help get you out of your seat.”

Safety in Any Industry

Clearly, Ciannilli hopes that the lessons of Challenger and Columbia will be carried forward into the next generations of spacecraft development and developers. “The practices, what’s good to do, the safety checks that are important what kind of redundancy is important and necessary, a lot of that is transferrable,” says Ciannilli, despite the differences in design and approach. And, Ciannilli emphasizes, these lessons can be carried down to Earth, as they are not isolated to NASA or even commercial crew: “aircraft, cars, submarines, it’s all the same in a lot of ways.”

Ciannilli advises those developers to “keep looking for the risks that are out there, capture them in your processes, promote them in your training, instill them in your culture, and then keep revisiting them.” And most importantly, he says, act on them. “It’s like a parent, you know. You tell your kids certain things to do or not to do, but if you don’t do them yourself in a very visible way it’s not going to be taken seriously.”

“I don’t care if you’re a technician turning a wrench or if you’re the CEO,” he admonishes. “Be the example of that culture and let others see how serious you are.”

Columbia debris reconstruction

Reconstruction of Columbia debris in the hangar at Kennedy Space Center (Credits: NASA).

Keeping the Message Alive

“As time gets removed, as time goes on, memories kind of fade, like old family stories,” says Ciannilli. “After a while the stories don’t have quite the same effect.”

In many ways, remembering Columbia – and Challenger before it – is very much a personal responsibility. Ciannilli talks about he and others from that time trying to transfer their experiences to new employees – employees who were in middle school or high school when the crew of STS-107 died. “They don’t have the personal connection that we have that lived it.” Ciannilli sees the Columbia room as a critical component in that communication. “They walk through the Columbia room and you can just see the impact it has. It becomes real for them, as close as it could be. And hopefully they take that into their career and it really means something in their future decision making processes.”

Ciannilli is also clearly excited about the new research that results from studying Columbia’s remains. “It’s definitely pushing the bounds of knowledge for the upper atmosphere and the effects there.” While researchers commonly publish their findings, there is no formal mechanism to incorporate new materials and structural knowledge back into the next generation of space vehicles. “It’s a treasure trove for the folks that do want to learn about it,” says Ciannilli.

“We do our best to keep it going and the best way you really can do that is passing down from one generation of engineer to the next.” So the Mercury engineers talk to Gemini and Apollo engineers who talk to the Space Shuttle engineers: “Tribal knowledge I call it.” But Ciannilli acknowledges that keeping it going is a constant challenge. “There’s a tremendous amount of experience that we don’t have any more,” both from NASA layoffs at the end of the shuttle program and the aging of engineers with those decades of experience. “You can’t replace the thousands and thousands that aren’t here anymore, but you try the best you can to get as much of the knowledge across that we learned and pass that on to the next folks.”

“The STS-107 mission was a mission of education and research,” Ciannilli concludes. “I always say that what we do is, in their name, continue that mission, continue that research, and continue the education, so Columbia in a way still flies. And so do they, in spirit.”

Mike Ciannilli has launched a website, Columbia.nasa.gov, as a one stop shop for everything Columbia, including a place to share your memories of Columbia with the community.  He urges anyone who thinks they may have a piece of Columbia or Challenger to give him a call. “Having any of Columbia or Challenger is a felony, so they don’t want to do that,” says Ciannilli. “But if they do find something, we thank them so much and want them to contact us. We want to bring all of Challenger and Columbia home.” 


This article was originally published in Space Safety Magazine Issue 6, Winter 2013, on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the Columbia disaster.

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About the author

Merryl Azriel

Merryl Azriel

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Having wandered into professional writing and editing after a decade in engineering, science, and management, Merryl now enjoys reintegrating the dichotomy by bringing space technology and policy within reach of an interested public. After three years as Space Safety Magazine’s Managing Editor, Merryl semi-retired to Visiting Contributor and manager of the campaign to bring the International Space Station collaboration to the attention of the Nobel Peace Prize committee. She keeps her pencil sharp as Proposal Manager for U.S. government contractor CSRA.