Shuttle Chief Faces Daunting Challenge
HOUSTON (AP) _ Ron Dittemore has never been to space, but he has devoted half his life to watching over others who have.
Now the 50-year-old manager of NASA’s shuttle program has taken on the biggest burden of his career _ finding and explaining to the world the cause of a catastrophic accident that happened during a mission he signed off on.
``The person to judge whether it’s a risk or not ultimately is the chairman of the mission management team. However, I am the accountable individual,″ Dittemore said during a telling moment in a news briefing Monday.
``It’s my personal commitment that I don’t do anything to jeopardize the crew and the vehicle. Ultimately, it’s my decision. It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.″
The investigation into the accident that killed the seven Columbia astronauts is focusing on insulating foam that broke off from the fuel tank during liftoff and hit thermal tiles on the shuttle’s left side. NASA engineers had studied the incident during the shuttle’s mission and concluded it posed no danger to the crew.
Through his daily news briefings, Dittemore has become the public face of NASA since the tragedy, and he has clearly found the disaster more than just professionally painful; it is wrenching personally.
``As long as I’m at work, as long as I’m focused on the job that I have to do, as long as I’m reviewing data or reviewing the results of teams, I can stay pretty well-focused on what I need to do,″ he said. ``The hardest thing that I’ve had to do in the past two days was drive home in my car Saturday afternoon, alone, with my own thoughts.″
Dittemore grew up in the same town as one of the Columbia astronauts, payload commander Mike Anderson.
``I told him that I was his pathfinder,″ Dittemore said. ``And so, we had a good relationship.″
Dittemore was born in Cooperstown, N.Y., and grew up at Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane, Wash. Anderson was seven years younger, but they went to the same grade school and attended rival high schools, which made for spirited banter between them at NASA. Both met their wives in Spokane, and their parents still live there.
Those who know Dittemore say he is well-suited to the task he has been assigned.
``You would never wish a circumstance like this on anybody, but in terms of having somebody in position to address the problem and to fix it, Ron is certainly a top draft choice I would look to,″ said Gregory Harbaugh, an ex-astronaut and former manager of NASA’s spacewalk project office. His four shuttle flights included missions under Dittemore’s watch.
``He will fix the problem, and he will do it right,″ Harbaugh said.
Dittemore graduated from high school in 1970, the year after the Apollo 11 moon landing, and entered the aeronautics and astronautics program at the University of Washington. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees there and worked as an engine development engineer in Arizona for two years before joining NASA’s shuttle program as a propulsion systems engineer in 1977. He never left.
Dittemore was selected in 1985 as a flight director, and he supervised 11 missions.
Former astronaut Ken Cameron, a veteran of three shuttle flights, joined NASA in 1984 and worked alongside Dittemore as ``cap com,″ the astronaut who regularly communicates with those in orbit.
``I think that Ron identifies with the missions. All the controllers look at it as, `This is my mission, this is my responsibility,‴ said Cameron, 53.
Yet for all his seriousness and his focus on detail, ``he also can be a pretty easygoing guy,″ Harbaugh said.
Dittemore reached his current post as manager of the space shuttle program in 1999.
Astronaut Tom Henricks, who flew four shuttle missions in 12 years, said Dittemore’s longevity with a program that sent its first shuttle _ Columbia _ into orbit in 1981 probably makes him ``the most knowledgeable person on Earth about the shuttle program. He’s dedicated his life to it.″
Henricks said Dittemore is a role model for modern flight directors in the same way Gene Kranz, the legendary failure-is-not-an-option flight director who oversaw the safe return of ill-fated Apollo 13 in 1970, was for Dittemore and others like him in the shuttle era.
``Ron is the Gene Kranz of our time,″ Henricks said. ``It’s a different style, because it’s a different time. I think he’s been demonstrating his openness, his passion for the program and his compassion for the team that supports the program.″