- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 24, 2003

The head of the space shuttle program said yesterday the inquiry into the Columbia tragedy will help NASA improve the shuttle program.
But Ron Dittemore did little second guessing about the agency's handling of the events leading up to the Feb. 1 explosion that killed seven astronauts.
He made the statement at NASA headquarters during a press conference yesterday held to announce his resignation. The announcement had been expected all week.
Mr. Dittemore, who headed NASA's $3.5 billion shuttle program the past four years, declined to say whether the agency made the wrong decisions while analyzing damage to Columbia from foam insulation on its external fuel tank.
"I think the thing to concentrate on is that over the last two months we have learned a lot about our systems and capabilities. I believe we will find some lessons learned … so our focus is not on looking at the past but moving toward the future," he said.
With his boss, Michael Kostelnik, at his side, Mr. Dittemore declined to say whether it was a mistake not to ask the National Imaging and Mapping Agency to use spy satellites to photograph Columbia during its orbit. Some NASA engineers said the images could have helped determine the scope of damage to the orbiter's left wing.
Mr. Dittemore, who works at theJohnson Space Center in Houston, did acknowledge that a closer look at damage from foam during a prior shuttle mission might have helped the agency measure damage to Columbia. The Space Shuttle Atlantis was damaged during liftoff Oct. 7 by foam insulation from its fuel tank.
"Whether or not we nailed everything 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 could," Mr. Dittemore said.
Columbia investigators believe a 2-pound piece of foam from the shuttle's external fuel tank pierced the left wing, allowing scorching gases to burn the orbiter during re-entry. The 13-member board hasn't completed its inquiry, though it released two interim recommendations last week. In one of those, it urged NASA to more closely inspect for damage the 22 carbon panels lining the front edge of the shuttle's wings.
Mr. Dittemore said it has been difficult for NASA to run the shuttle program with so few government workers, but he said it hasn't jeopardized shuttle safety. The agency turned to contract workers employed by private-sector firms to save money. The shuttle program now employs about 2,000 NASA workers and 15,000 contractors.
"It certainly has been a challenge for us to respond with the decreasing work force on the civil servant side," he said.
Mr. Dittemore, who has worked for NASA for 26 years, said he made his decision to leave the agency before the Columbia tragedy. Once the shuttle blew apart, "all personal plans had to take a back seat," he said.
He said he plans to remain with the space agency until investigators complete their inquiry, and he declined to say where he'll work after leaving NASA.
Mr. Dittemore was the primary source of information after Columbia disintegrated over Texas during its descent. He told reporters there was little that could have been done for Columbia even if NASA knew about damage to the shuttle's left wing. He also doubted that foam insulation could have caused enough damage to the orbiter to lead to catastrophic damage.
Howard McCurdy, an American University professor who has written about NASA's history and culture, said Mr. Dittemore will be remembered for his openness during the Columbia press conferences.
"His legacy is more likely to be one where he's respected for his openness in the aftermath of Columbia. He and [NASA Administrator Sean] O'Keefe could have gone to the bunkers and released information grudgingly. He didn't do that," Mr. McCurdy said.
Mr. Dittemore said in his resignation letter that he is "confident we will find the root cause of the Columbia accident, fix it and return to flight soon."
He said it makes sense to leave once the investigation board files its final report so the next shuttle program manager can implement recommendations in the document.
Mr. Kostelnik, Mr. Dittemore's direct boss, said some people have been contacted about taking over the job. NASA will look inside NASA but consider candidates from outside the agency.
Mr. Kostelnik said NASA hopes to resume space shuttle flights within a year.


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