Spaceflight Now

Dittemore to leave after accident probe complete
Posted: April 23, 2003

Shuttle chief Ron Dittemore uses a model to explain information during a news conference soon after the Columbia accident. Photo: Spaceflight Now/NASA TV
Shuttle program manager Ronald Dittemore, the straight-talking "voice of NASA" credited with boosting the agency's image in the immediate aftermath of the Columbia disaster, will leave NASA after an independent accident investigation board completes its work, he told reporters today.

In an interview following a teleconference in Washington, Dittemore told CBS News he was not at all concerned about anyone getting the impression he had been sacked in the wake of the disaster.

"I made this personal decision some time ago, in the fall," he said by telephone, waiting for a flight back to Houston. "Of course the timing was terrible right after (Columbia). So I just delayed it and (now) feel the timing is right. No, I'm not worried about the perceptions. It's one of those things where you make a personal decision and you feel that it's right and you just go with it."

The Orlando Sentinel and CBS News reported Saturday that Dittemore had planned to retire and take a job in private industry after the successful completion of Columbia's mission and that he stayed on in the wake of the disaster to oversee return-to-flight activities and to support the Columbia Accident Investigation Board.

Varous sources, however, said Dittemore planned to take a job with a particular shuttle contractor. But he told CBS News today that "I've made no agreements with anybody on any particular opportunities."

"Those opportunities in my opinion are wide open for me to discuss and think about and to entertain and whether it's in the human spaceflight business or some other business, I think they're all going to be something I'll look at. But at this stage, that's not my first priority and I'll work on that as time is available."

As a senior NASA manager, Dittemore would need a waiver from agency Administrator Sean O'Keefe before taking any job in which he would be representing a shuttle contractor in any future negotiations with the government. Without such a waiver - and they are rare - senior managers must wait a year before taking on such jobs.

During a teleconference from NASA headquarters earlier today, Dittemore said he began discussing his retirement with senior management last year and that now, as the accident probe begins transitioning from investigation to recommendations for corrective actions, was a good time to make his own personal transition.

"When you first come into a job like this, program manager for space shuttle, you recognize you have a tremendous opportunity," he said. "You get to work with some of the most capable and creative people ever gathered together in one place for one common cause. But you also recognize you cannot do it forever.

"Last summer, my wife and I and our family discussed the possibilities for the future and felt ... it was time for us to consider other opportunities. That's when the dialogue began with (senior management) about the possibilities and potential of leaving early in the spring of 2003.

"As the events unfolded in February, certainly all personal plans had to take a back seat," Dittemore said. "As the last two months have unfolded and now I see we're starting to move into a different realm of our investigation ... it seemed to me it was appropriate to talk with (management) again and pick this time to make a transition in leadership."

Dittemore, a former flight controller, flight director and chief of shuttle engineering, was named shuttle program manager in 1999. He said today it is important to begin the process of searching for his replacement now, before return-to-flight activities mature, so the new program manager can have time to absorb the intricacies of the job.

"It would be very important to have new leadership in place, to have that foundation established," he said. "And as you move forward over the coming months, building on that foundation from a new leader perspective, you're going to be that much more prepared, both from a leadership point of view and a team responding to that leadership, to move right into return to flight and then, picking up the flight rate again.

"I believe personally this transition time frame would be extremely beneficial to allow this new leader time to prepare, the time to respond to recommendations, the time to implement recommendations, to have a strong foundation, to have a strong springboard to jump forward into the coming years."

Michael Kostelnik, who oversees the shuttle and station programs for Bill Readdy, NASA's associate administrator for spaceflight, said he and Dittemore first discussed the program manager's departure last fall. And then the Columbia tragedy occurred.

"Ron put aside his plans and his thoughts for pursuing opportunities because there clearly was a tough job to be done and I think you all were as much as anybody a beneficiary of his expertise because early on, when there were a lot of questions, Ron Dittemore was the voice of the program for the things that were happening, trying to put in context what we had experienced," Kostelnik said.

"I think most of you will agree that Ron during that time period did an outstanding job relaying some very complex, very technical thoughts in a way the media could deal with. And I think a lot of the credit NASA received early on for being open and being forthcoming with as much information as we had at the time, a lot of that we owe to Ron. In his role as the program manager, he did an outstanding job.

He said it will be difficult to find a suitable replacement for Dittemore because "it takes a certain kind of individual to step up to the challenge, not only a big program management job but one that has human life on the line."

"It's not very often we ask people in this country to do this," Kostelnik said. "It is a unique role and although we're sad to see Ron choose to go at this time, we know it's the right kind of thing for him if his chooses to do that. We wish him well as he pursues other opportunities downstream. We're all grateful for his 26 years of service."

Dittemore would not discuss the ongoing accident investigation, saying he did not want to comment on any potential findings before the Columbia Accident Investigation Board releases its final report this summer.

He did say NASA would need to do a better job tracking potentially dangerous trends across all the components of the vehicle to spot and recognize the potential severity of problems like foam insulation falling from the external fuel tank during launch. Foam shedding was a well-known known problem in the program and a foam impact on Columbia's left wing 82 seconds after launch probably played a role in the disaster. But foam shedding was never considered a "safety of flight" issue.

"Tracking trends is in the eye of the beholder and it's a difficult job," Dittemore said. "We have six or seven hardware elements in different locations. They have different databases of anomalies that may have happened either in manufacturing, or production or even in processing. We link those databases together today, but perhaps that linkage is not as optimized as it could be. And we're going to have to take a look at that, to do a better job of trending."

During shuttle mission STS-112 late last year, a large piece of foam insulation broke free and struck one of the shuttle's boosters. In the wake of the Columbia accident - and with the benefit of hindsight - many observers have questioned the wisdom of continuing to launch missions without first correcting the foam shedding problem.

Dittemore today defended the agency's response, saying every senior manager in the program was briefed on the matter.

"As a result of the foam strike on STS-112, there were actions that were given to the appropriate individuals and elements to discuss that strike, to understand its impact," he said. "There were actions to discuss that both at our change board within the program and at the level one flight readiness review. So that scenario and repercussions of that scenario were briefed across the program and to senior agency management in the flight readiness review and it was a healthy discussion.

"And so I consider that an appropriate response to an event," he said. "Now whether or not we nailed everything down and pounded it flat, I think hindsight might call that into question. But at the time, we followed our processes and we investigated it as thoroughly as we thought we should at the time and we'll develop lessons learned from that activity."

Dittemore also was asked about decisions made during Columbia's mission not to request spy satellite imagery of the shuttle to look for signs of damaged after engineers realized a large piece of foam insulation had struck the shuttle's left wing. Dittemore declined to comment.

"The thing to concentrate on is that over the last two months we have learned a lot about our system, about capabilities," he said. "And I believe we will find some lessons learned out of all these activities that we can correct. ... So my focus is not on what coulda, shoulda happened or what I might have said, my focus is on what (are the) lessons learned and how are we going to implement corrections and how are we going to be better in the future?"

As for his personal plans, Dittemore said he hopes to end up in aerospace when he moves into the private sector.

"The last thing on my priority list is my personal opportunities," he said. "I have invested most of my professional career in the human spaceflight business. I feel passionately about it, I think it's the right thing for us as a nation to do, I think it offers many side benefits to our society. And I think it's our destiny to do these types of things. I would hope that as I consider opportunities that those opportunities would remain in human space flight. That's where I feel emotionally attached."

Dittemore joined NASA in 1977 as a shuttle propulsion systems engineer, became a flight controller and ultimately a shuttle flight director. In 1992, he was named deputy assistant director of the space station program before transitioning to shuttle program management the following year.

In 1995, Dittemore became manager of space shuttle integration and served as chairman of NASA's mission management team, which oversees the day-to-day conduct of a shuttle mission. He was serving as manager of the shuttle engineering office when he was named to replace Tommy Holloway as overall manager of the shuttle program in 1999.

Hubble Calendar
NEW! This remarkable calendar features stunning images of planets, stars, gaseous nebulae, and galaxies captured by NASA's orbiting Hubble Space Telescope.

Hubble Posters
Stunning posters featuring images from the Hubble Space Telescope and world-renowned astrophotographer David Malin are now available from the Astronomy Now Store.