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FW: Shuttle program to lose Dittemore

Submitted by Arthur - N1ORC
Previous permission of the Houston Chronicle granted.

April 19, 2003, 10:16PM

Shuttle program to lose Dittemore, some reports say

Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle
Space shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore, who became widely known for
the daily televised briefings he gave after Columbia broke up on
re-entry Feb. 1, will soon resign his post, according to published

Dittemore, 51, an aeronautical engineer who has worked at Johnson Space
Center for 26 years, could announce his departure as early as this week.

He declined to confirm or deny the reports by the Orlando Sentinel and
CBS News. "I can't say anything about it," he said Saturday. "I can't

A source said Dittemore had planned his departure before the Columbia
mission began on Jan. 16 and was going to announce it after the crew
returned. He reportedly was going to take a job in private industry. 

Until a replacement is selected, the program would be in the hands of
Bill Readdy, NASA's Washington-based associate administrator for
spaceflight, and his deputy, Michael Kostelnik. Last month, they
selected James Halsell, a veteran NASA astronaut, to lead efforts to
return the shuttle program to flight. 

There is a growing consensus among investigators that Columbia's breakup
over Texas was precipitated by the impact shortly after liftoff of a
chunk of insulating foam from the external fuel tank against the
spacecraft's left wing. 

In the early briefings, Dittemore said the foam strike was not likely to
have led to the accident. He supported a Boeing Co.-led assessment done
during the mission that concluded the impact had hit the underside of
the wing and was not likely to have created a safety-of-flight hazard. 

He contended that the in-flight analysis had been carried out using the
most conservative parameters -- assigning the highest estimate for the
size of the foam and using a computer software tool that was designed to
"overpredict" the possible danger. 

He also noted that shuttles had sustained an average of more than 100
foam strikes over 112 missions without a safety concern. 

"For all of these 112 flights, we have never identified damage that
would be a safety-of-flight concern," Dittemore said at a Feb. 5
briefing. "And so it's difficult for us to believe as engineers, as
management, and as a team, that this particular piece of foam debris
shedding from the tank represented a safety-of-flight issue." 

His role as NASA's lead accident spokesman ended two days later, when
the independent 13-member Columbia Accident Investigation Board gathered
in Houston to take over the probe. 

Since then, Dittemore has resumed his management role and has no direct
influence over the probe. 

Dittemore laid plans well before Columbia's mission to leave NASA and
planned a public announcement after the seven astronauts landed and
returned to Houston, according to two associates. 

"The accident was the wrong time to leave. So he rolled up his sleeves,"
said one associate, who asked not to be named. "The man is dedicated,
hard-working and only wants the right thing for this agency. He has been
going through hell." 

After joining Johnson Space Center in 1977, he rose from flight director
to deputy assistant space station program director and manager of space
shuttle integration. He was named shuttle manager in April 1999 by
then-JSC director George Abbey. 

In the weeks following Columbia's breakup, the accident board led by
Harold Gehman, a retired Navy admiral, has relied on a careful and
continuing analysis of launch film and video to pinpoint the foam impact
against the 22 U-shaped carbon composite panels lining the leading edge
of the left wing. 

A tape from a flight data recorder recovered from the Columbia wreckage
has revealed that sensors showed a sharp temperature rise near
carbon-composite panel nine on the left wing and along the aft fuselage
within minutes of Columbia's initial re-entry into the atmosphere. 

Further, a temperature sensor in the same area recorded an unusual rise
during the first minutes of Columbia's climb to orbit, a finding that
would add further confirmation the wing was damaged as the spacecraft
lifted off. That finding is still under review. 

Teams of experts who work under the direction of the NASA Accident
Investigation Team and the Columbia Accident Investigation Board intend
to conclude soon that the foam blow along left wing panels seven, eight
and nine triggered the breakup, according to one source familiar with
the probe. 

A spokesman for the board, however, rejected any suggestion that the
probe was nearing completion. 

"The board hasn't made a final determination yet about what caused the
accident," Laura Brown, the board's chief spokesperson, said Saturday.
"They are still looking at a lot of issues, including the information
from the NASA technical teams. 

By early May, a round of foam-impact testing is scheduled to begin at
the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. Investigators hope the
tests confirm their theories that the force of the foam strike was
sufficient to cause damage to the wing, causing it to break apart in the
stress of re-entry. 

In addition to the probable cause, the board is looking into
contributing factors, including White House space policy, annual funding
levels, as well as NASA's own safety practices and its supervision of
shuttle mission preparations and operations. 

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