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Tap into the experiences of NASA’s technical workforce as they develop missions to explore distant worlds—from the Moon to Mars, from Titan to Psyche. Learn how they advance technology to make aviation on Earth faster, quieter and more fuel efficient. Each biweekly episode celebrates program and project managers, engineers, scientists and thought leaders working on multiple fronts to advance aeronautics and space exploration in a bold new era of discovery. New episodes are released bi-weekly on Wednesdays. 

Mike Ciannilli, the agency’s manager of the Apollo, Challenger, Columbia Lessons Learned Program, previews the Space Shuttle Columbia National Tour.

Ciannilli explains what the NASA workforce can expect during Columbia tour stops at NASA centers across the U.S., including a display of Columbia artifacts along with training opportunities to apply lessons learned from the space shuttle tragedy.

In this episode of Small Steps, Giant Leaps, you’ll learn about:

  • The Space Shuttle Columbia National Tour
  • NASA’s plans to share Columbia lessons learned with a new generation
  • The continuing impact of the Space Shuttle Columbia and her crew on NASA mission success


Related Resources

Remembering Columbia

Preserving the Past to Enhance Future Success: Part One | Part Two

Critical Knowledge inSight: Lessons and Legacies: Space Shuttle Columbia

Columbia Accident Investigation Board

Columbia Research and Preservation Area

Documentary: Columbia: Her Continued Mission

NASA Office of Safety & Mission Assurance Video: Helping Hands – NASA’s Gerry Schumann and Mike Ciannilli share personal stories of people they met during the Columbia search efforts.

NASA Office of Safety & Mission Assurance Video: Learning From the Debris – NASA’s Mike Ciannilli and Mike Leinbach, and the Center for the Advancement of Space Safety and Mission Assurance’s Darren Cone discuss the story the Columbia debris had to tell and what was learned from studying these artifacts.

NASA Office of Safety & Mission Assurance Video: Columbia: Still Coming Home – NASA’s Gerry Schumann and Mike Ciannilli explain how pieces of Columbia are still being found today and how these findings make it home to NASA.

NASA Office of Safety & Mission Assurance Video: Helicopter Operations – NASA’s Gerry Schumann and Mike Ciannilli explain the role of helicopter searches during the Columbia recovery efforts, and explain how two additional lives were lost during this time.

APPEL Course:

Lessons Learned for Mission Success


Mike Ciannilli Credit: NASA

Mike Ciannilli
Credit: NASA

Mike Ciannilli is the agency’s manager of the Apollo, Challenger, Columbia Lessons Learned Program, and is responsible for innovatively and effectively sharing the lessons of the past to help ensure future success. Ciannilli oversees the Columbia Research and Preservation Office, which preserves all Columbia artifacts, as well as the loan program, which loans out Columbia artifacts for research and academic purposes. In addition, this role involves giving lessons learned tours for NASA engineers, scientists, interns, executives, commercial partners and others. During these tours, he uses the stories of Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia to share what has been learned from these mishaps to prevent reoccurrence in future applications. Ciannilli served nine years as NASA Test Director for the Space Shuttle Program at Kennedy Space Center, responsible for processing oversight of the space shuttle orbiters and ground support systems, including launch and landing facilities, and leading the launch team through launch countdown activities. Ciannilli has a bachelor’s in space science from the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, Florida.


KSC Launch Control: Six. Five. Four. We’ve gone for main engine start. We have main engine start. (Engine roar.) We have liftoff. Liftoff of America’s first space shuttle. And the shuttle has cleared the tower.

Deana Nunley (Host): Friday, April 12 marks the 38th anniversary of the Space Shuttle Columbia’s first launch and the inaugural flight in the Space Shuttle Program.

It also marks the beginning of the Space Shuttle Columbia National Tour. And for the first time in this format, artifacts from the Space Shuttle Columbia will tour NASA centers across the country on a new mission to inspire, engage and educate.

Mike Ciannilli: It’s going to be very reflectful on the past tragedy, but I think, in the end, it will be a very powerful, positive, inspiring week that folks will be looking towards the future, learning to apply that to be more successful going forward.

Columbia’s helping us towards the future. This was a very dark time in our history. This was a very difficult time in our history.

We’re being extremely vigilant to never forget this incident, and now we’re impassioned to make sure we share this incident and the lessons learned resulting from it with a whole new generation of folks.

Host: You’re listening to Small Steps, Giant Leaps – a NASA APPEL Knowledge Services podcast featuring interviews and stories, tapping into project experiences in order to unravel lessons learned, identify best practices and discover novel ideas. I’m Deana Nunley.

The Space Shuttle Columbia National Tour will feature a display of Columbia artifacts and a series of town hall meetings to highlight how understanding the past can ensure mission success in the future. The tour is open to the NASA workforce and our partners who have badge access to a NASA center.

Mike Ciannilli, the manager of the Apollo, Challenger, Columbia Lessons Learned Program, is leading the tour and is our guest on the show today. Mike, thanks for joining us.

Ciannilli: Well, thank you so much. I appreciate the opportunity.

Host: You have a long history with the Space Shuttle Columbia. Could you give us a snapshot from your first interaction with Columbia to now?

Ciannilli: Well, that’s a long story. Columbia and I actually go back about four decades. As a kid, I used to build models of Columbia. That was my introduction to the Space Shuttle Program, building models of Columbia. And through that, I actually learned about orbiter systems and kind of how the shuttle was put together. Then through the years, of course, pursued a career towards working in the space program.

Then my first job at the Kennedy Space Center, I was actually assigned to Columbia. Interestingly enough, and be it fate or just be it chance, nearly every job I’ve had at Kennedy Space Center, I’ve either worked closely with Columbia or been assigned formally to a Columbia team. So, it’s been quite a long relationship, if you will, with Columbia, up to having the honor to be on the launch team for Columbia many times, and then being on the launch team for the fateful 107 mission, and of course then experiencing the devastating loss of Columbia, spending a long time out in Texas with a bunch of other amazing folks, trying to help bring Columbia and the crew home.

Then after the accident, I’ve been involved with Columbia through, first, the Columbia Research and Preservation Office, trying to share the artifacts of Columbia and help share those with researchers and educators. Then now in our brand-new Apollo, Challenger, Columbia Lessons Learned Program, I and Columbia once again are finding ourselves kind of working together, if you will, promoting lessons learned and trying to enhance our future mission success. So, it’s kind of a long story, but each step of the way we’ve been kind of working together, perhaps even closer now than ever before. So, it’s been a close partnership, if you will. I’m very humbled and honored to have that opportunity, and I’m excited to help share Columbia with a whole new generation of folks into the future.

Host: Columbia and her crew have made a lasting impression on the many NASA and contractor employees who help support their mission. What’s the reason for the Columbia tour?

Ciannilli: The Space Shuttle Columbia tour kind of came out over a period of years of thinking about, “How can we share Columbia with a larger audience?” I’ve had the honor for many years of sharing Columbia with many thousands of folks coming to Kennedy Space Center and interfacing and meeting Columbia, if you will, and learning the lessons and the stories and the important, valuable lessons learned from those experiences.

One thing that I kept experiencing the feeling of is I saw the impact Columbia had on everyone that came and interfaced with her. I kept thinking, “Wow, if we could just take that, magnify that by manyfold and introduce Columbia and the lessons learned to a much greater audience, the potential that exists there to really help change the equation and help enhance our mission success, not only across NASA as an agency, but also across the United States.” So, with that thought process in work, the Columbia National Tour came to be as a way to help bring Columbia, those that couldn’t come to see Columbia, to the Cape, we could actually have Columbia, if you will, come to them and, along with her, bring her messages and guidance for the future.

Host: What can NASA employees expect during the Columbia tour stop at their center?

Ciannilli: The Columbia National Tour is going to be a very special experience, I hope, for all. What we’re going to do is we’re going to travel around the nation. We’ll be hitting probably two to three centers per year. So, this is a continuing program, to continue to reinforce the lessons learned across the agency and across our missions and programs as we do that.

So, what the folks will see is they’ll see an amount of promotion before and announcements before the events, so they’ll be well aware of what’s going to be happening, and introductions of how they can participate in the experiences.

For those, Columbia will show up. We plan to be there approximately a week or so at each center. There will be a display, a very beautiful display that was created, and it will be housed in one of the facilities on location, and within that display will be a number of very precious, very powerful Columbia artifacts. So, these are real artifacts of Space Shuttle Columbia. They’ll be very representative of the vehicle, representative of the crew, representative of the accident and the investigation and what we learned. So, it will be very, very well-chosen artifacts. Through those artifacts, the folks not only get to experience Columbia firsthand, but also feel the full impact of the importance of doing our jobs right and doing everything we can to learn from the past to achieve greater mission success.

In addition to the display that will be there on center, we’re going to have a center-wide event. So, at each location we’ll have center leadership involved with it. We’ll also have an array of very powerful speakers and folks that were in some fashion or another involved in the Columbia story, and they’re going to be providing different perspectives of not only the accident, but also of the power and the lessons learned that are provided through our new program. So, this will be something that all are welcome to and certainly encouraged to attend. So, we’ll have that as a center-wide event.

And then throughout that week, Deana, we’re also going to have more reinforcement. For example, the APPEL organization, which has been a great partner with the Apollo, Challenger, Columbia Lessons Learned Program, in addition to the Office of the Chief Engineer, and what APPEL is going to be doing, which is very exciting, is they’re going to bring classes and opportunities with instructors into that week and around that time, and bring in special topics that folks can sign up for and get much further detailed lessons and learning from that week. So, we’ll have a lot of training opportunities.

Then in addition, to kind of round it out, I’m also going to be available for that week. I’ll be moving around the center and visiting various branch meetings and various division meetings, and having smaller conversations with folks and trying to start that healthy dialog that we all need to flesh out the lessons learned on all of our work spaces and programs, and then try to bring those up, so we get a healthy dialog started within all these groups as well.

So, in short, it’s going to be a very exciting week. It’s going to be very powerful. It’s going to be very reflectful on the past tragedy, but I think, in the end, it will be a very powerful, positive, inspiring week that folks will be looking towards the future, learning to apply that to be more successful going forward.

Host: I know you’re excited about the upcoming launch of the Columbia tour. How would you characterize your expectations and what you’re hoping to share with the larger NASA family about the Columbia crew and its mission?

Ciannilli: I’m very excited about the potential, what we can achieve on this Space Shuttle Columbia National Tour. I say that because I’ve had the humbled opportunity over many years to share Columbia with many thousands of folks from very diverse backgrounds, from different programs, different missions, different careers and walks of life.

It’s never lost on me how powerful the crew of STS-107 and how powerful the vehicle’s story resonates with everyone that visits her. These are folks that are not only folks that may have had the honor to work on Columbia, in some cases, help build Columbia, but also a generation of folks now that have come through that were perhaps, in some cases, in elementary school when we lost Columbia. Across all those spectrums and an array of diversity of experiences with the story, I see one common thread. Columbia continues to powerfully resonate with all of them. So, again, it doesn’t matter if you’re in a leadership role of a contract or an agency, organization, or if you’re in a different – perhaps you’re a new hire, or if you had experience with Columbia, or you’re hearing the story for the first time. It cuts across all of those divides and the common unity factor is it resonates. People want to hear the story. They want to hear about the crew. And they want to hear about how they can apply these lessons learned. So that’s what excites me. So, my expectations are very optimistic for how powerful Columbia is going to be able to help us going forward.

Looking at that power that Columbia has, the power that the crew has and their stories and experiences, applying that to a much larger audience, all those folks that cannot come to the Kennedy Space Center. I’m very excited about the potential of how we can help those folks enhance their future mission success, bring lessons learned into their workplaces, reinvigorate, reignite the passion and dedication to perhaps take a refocus and look at their jobs and how they can improve what they do, and improve the functionality of their teams, and also continue to make that grow into the future, so everyone has greater mission success going forward.

Host: We’re focusing now on the NASA family, and this tour is designed for the NASA family, but over the years you’ve seen reactions and responses from a lot of people across the nation who weren’t necessarily directly associated with NASA. Right?

Ciannilli: Yes, I sure have. I’ve had the honor to go across the country and speak and to meet a lot of folks. Some folks, of course, were very close to Columbia, in some cases, helped bring Columbia and her crew home. But a great number of folks that I’ve had the honor to meet and talk with were outside of that circle. These are folks that perhaps are outside of that inner circle, but no less part of the Columbia story.

Columbia belongs to all of us. Columbia was a national asset. All of us as Americans were very proud of Columbia, her crew, as they were of Challenger and her crew and the Apollo crews. So, it’s a national story. It’s bigger than NASA, if you will. And having the honor and the privilege to have these conversations with folks, folks will often come up and tell me stories, stories such as where they were during the accident, what their emotions were, how it may have impacted their lives or changed their lives going forward, how they’ve never forgotten.

I still get letters and notes from folks that share those experiences and stories with me, in some cases going back decades. So, the ability for these stories to resonate on a very personal level to a great number of folks has never been lost on me. So, I see so much potential based on past experiences that I’m excited to get Columbia back off the launch pad again, if you will, on her next mission after STS-107, our mission into the future. I’m excited to start that and see so many of the amazing things that Columbia and her crew can still do for us and with us.

Host: One area of emphasis with the tour is the importance of learning from past decisions and mishaps. Based on reactions and responses that you were talking about and that you’ve seen as you’ve guided thousands of people through the Columbia Research and Preservation Area at Kennedy Space Center, how do you think this tour will impact employees’ attention to lessons learned?

Ciannilli: I really believe it’s going to have a profound impact on their experiences with Columbia. Safety is one of those areas that of course is critically important, but also, it can be kind of nebulous. How do you measure safety in some cases?

So, in this case, when you talk safety, but you actually bring a piece of Columbia, a piece of hardware before folks and have them see with their own eyes and experience the consequences of a time where we did not make, perhaps, the best course of action, it resonates. It’s tremendously powerful. So, it takes it almost out of the theoretical and puts it in reality and folks experience that.

And I see that. I can tell folks, when they’re coming up through the Vehicle Assembly Building and entering the Columbia Room, there’s often a certain mood in the group. Then when I see the folks leave, there’s one common factor as well when the folks are leaving. I see them often changed in some way. Sometimes it’s subtle. Sometimes it’s more visible. But I see the impact Columbia has on them. So, experiencing that over time, it really gets me encouraged to see and feel that we’re going to have a profound impact on folks. When I say “we,” it’s Columbia and crew will have a very powerful impact on the folks and that excites me.

One thing I also see, Deana, as well is – and our purpose for this is it’s also a positive forward message. So, Columbia is helping us towards the future. This was a very dark time in our history. This was a very difficult time in our history. We’ve taken great pains to learn a great deal from this incident. We’re being extremely vigilant to never forget this incident, and now we’re impassioned to make sure we share this incident and the lessons learned resulting from it with a whole new generation of folks.

So there is an element of, I think, great positivity coming forward. And I’m looking forward to seeing the folks as we go across the nation, that they will experience at some point during this tour a very positive feeling inside, and also a positive feeling, inspiration, if you will, to perhaps do their jobs better, look at their role perhaps differently, perhaps engage in their careers in a different way, all with the emphasis of redoubling and rededicating themselves to being vigilant, doing their jobs the very best they can, helping their teams strive for the most excellence that they could possibly have, and keep that in the forefront as we go forward to a very new, exciting future, and again, not only in the space program, but everyone that NASA touches across the nation in different disciplines. I think we have opportunity to really affect a great number of folks in a very good way.

Host: Upon completion of the Columbia tour in a few years, what do you hope will have been accomplished that represents continuation of the Columbia crew’s mission and lasting legacy?

Ciannilli: That’s a great question. I called this Columbia National Tour. It’s actually a re-launch of Space Shuttle Columbia, if you will. We all know Space Shuttle Columbia first launched April 12, 1981, and her last mission was STS-107 in 2003. I humbly suggest that it’s her last mission, but it’s not her final mission. She has another mission to continue. So, there’s a mission after STS-107 and that mission begins on April 12, 2019, here back at the Kennedy Space Center, 38 years after she first launched. We’re going to humbly launch Columbia again and we’re going to launch the crew again, on a brand-new mission to inspire.

So, as this tour continues over the next number of years, I certainly hope that we gain enthusiasm for the tour coming from center to center, the lessons learned continue to grow, the feedback that we get from all the folks out there continues to reverberate and builds up an importance and a dedication to reignite the lessons and keep them in our forefront.

Then when Columbia’s mission on this particular tour, when we complete it, whatever date that happens to be, we’re going to leave the agency and everyone that NASA interfaces with, hopefully, with a much better appreciation for not only lessons learned, but hopefully a re-inspiration in their areas of work to be rededicated to doing their jobs the very best they can and seeing the success and the fruits of that.

Host: Thanks again, Mike, for taking time to share your thoughts and for giving us a preview of the Columbia tour.

Ciannilli: Well, it’s absolutely my honor to share this with you and your audience. I’m very humbled and honored to help bring Columbia around to share with a lot of folks. So, thank you so much.

Host: Absolutely. Any closing thoughts?

Ciannilli: As we tour the nation, I just would like to invite all the folks to know about the Apollo, Challenger, Columbia Lessons Learned Program. We are dedicated to helping all and everyone to be as successful as they can through the sharing of lessons learned, through our accidents for Apollo 1, our Apollo 13 incident, the loss of Space Shuttle Challenger, and also Space Shuttle Columbia.

So, as we travel around, I invite them to reach out, to learn more and to certainly know that opportunities for collaboration and partnership not only exist, but are very much encouraged. So, I look forward to hearing and meeting a lot of those folks who do just that.

Host: Links to topics mentioned during our conversation are available at, along with Mike’s bio and a transcript of today’s episode.

If you have suggestions of guests and topics for upcoming shows, please let us know on Twitter at NASA_APPEL and use the hashtag SmallStepsGiantLeaps.

We invite you to subscribe to the podcast, and tell your friends and colleagues about it.

Thanks for listening.

Mission Control: Columbia, Houston. You’re go at throttle up.

STS-107 Commander Rick Husband: We copy. Go at throttle up.