Spaceflight Now

Parsons named shuttle program manager
Posted: May 9, 2003

William Parsons. Photo: NASA/Renee Bouchard
NASA today named William Parsons, director of the agency's Stennis Space Center, as the new manager of the space shuttle program, replacing Ronald Dittemore who announced his retirement late last month. Parsons, who began his NASA career at the Kennedy Space Center in 1990, will take over from Dittemore sometime this summer, after an on-the-job training transition period.

"This is not a job that just anybody could do and this is not a time for other than the very best candidate," said Michael Kostelnik, deputy associate administrator for shuttle and space station. "We were fortunate all these things came together.

"We looked far and wide, both within NASA and exterior to NASA, looked at a lot of great candidates with a lot of great skills. We were concerned with leadership, we were concerned with management acumen, we were concerned with professional characteristics and obviously wanted somebody experienced in the program."

Parsons is widely respected by agency insiders, bringing a wide range of experience to a difficult job, a man "who's spent time at a variety of (NASA facilities) and has learned what works and doesn't work," said one senior manager. "Personally, I believe he brings a level of leadership not often found."

Parsons began his space career readying military cargos for launch on the space shuttle and ultimately joined NASA's shuttle work force at the Kennedy Space Center, integrating payloads for launch and eventually serving as a flow director in charge of the shuttle Discovery's ground processing.

He then moved to the Stennis Space Center where he ran space shuttle main engine testing before moving on to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, serving as manager of center operations and then as deputy center director. A native of Mississippi, he returned to Stennis in 2001 and was named center director in 2002.

The job of center director is one of the highest management positions in NASA. In some respects, one could look at Parsons' decision to take over management of the shuttle program as a step down, even though the shuttle program has a much larger budget and a much larger work force.

"I don't look at things that way," Parsons said today. "I'm proud to be a member of this agency, I'm proud to be able to serve this agency, I look forward to being asked to do this and I look forward to being given this challenge and to have an opportunity to help this program get back to flying."

Said Kostelnik: "Looking both exterior to NASA and interior to NASA, we could not have found a better qualified candidate. A natural leader, trained in leadership early on in his Marine Corps days, a very astute manager, technical degrees and solid technical experience in these programs. ... He has great people skills, he is well respected in our industry."

Parsons said he plans to work closely with Dittemore over the next two months or so to learn the intricacies of an inherently complex program before taking over later this summer.

"I think I can learn some good things from Ron," Parsons said. "I think Ron has been an outstanding program manager. ... I think his approach to running the shuttle program has been very solid, I think he has good processes in place, I think we'll use those processes to maximize the efficiencies and effectiveness of what we do from this point forward.

"I think Ron also showed us a strong character when we had our tragedy. I hope I don't have to deal with a situation like that, but I think I learned a lot from Ron on how he approached that event."

Parsons at today's news conference. Photo: NASA/Renee Bouchard
Asked what he considered his greatest challenge, Parsons said "to take the findings of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board and work with the entire community to then lay out a plan on how we're going to return to flight."

"It's probably not the easiest time to come in and take over the shuttle program," he said. "But then again, I look forward to the challenge, I think I have a great team in place right now that will help work through those issues and as we get the findings from the board, then we'll start working hard on trying to do the right things so we can get back to flying safely."

He took issue with comments by Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, who said Thursday the space shuttle "is an unsafe system and it is technically impossible to make it safe enough, in my opinion."

"I find it troublesome, maybe, that there are thoughts like that out there," Parsons said today. "But we have to work our way through that. I think we can fly this shuttle safely and so we look forward to doing that in the future."

Even so, he took the job with "quite a bit of trepidation. I mean, this is a big challenge for me and I had to think my way through it. But again, the shuttle program is extremely important to this agency and to have the opportunity to work with the contractors and the program folks to get this shuttle flying again so we can complete the international space station is something I look forward to."

Dittemore, a former flight controller, flight director and chief of shuttle engineering, was named shuttle program manager in 1999. He won widespread respect in the aftermath of the Feb. 1 Columbia disaster for holding daily news briefings to keep the public informed about the progress of NASA's ongoing investigation.

In late April, Dittemore told reporters he had made plans to retire before Columbia's launch and that he initially put those plans on hold following Columbia's loss. But he said it was important for NASA to select a replacement as soon as possible, before return-to-flight activities mature, so the new program manager can have time to absorb the intricacies of the job.

Kostelnik agreed today, saying Parsons will need to work closely with Dittemore in the weeks ahead to get up to speed on shuttle operations from the perspective of program manager.

"The shuttle is an incredibly complex piece of machinery," Kostelnik said. "It has an annual budget of about $3.5 billion or so, there are not only operational issues there are acquisition aspects, it'a a very complex management job and it does take some time to have a transition.

"Bill's a great leader and a solid manager, but has not been involved intimately with some of the moving parts of the shuttle and this will give them a reasonable time to do a graceful transition."

No specific date has been set for Dittemore's departure.

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