HOUSTON - When veteran NASA engineer George Studor tuned in to watch his boss announce the loss of the space shuttle Columbia, he said yesterday, he saw a man he'd never seen before.

Studor and millions around the world listened as Ronald W. Dittemore, manager of the space shuttle program, tried to express what it was like to have a shuttle crew perish under his watch. His voice hollowed to a husk, Dittemore told reporters and viewers, "My thoughts are on what we missed, what I missed, to allow this to happen."

Fellow workers at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration say it was an unusually personal glimpse of the man who is in charge of all shuttle operations and who has, in daily briefings from the Johnson Space Center, emerged as NASA's public face as it confronts the Columbia disaster.

As unexpected as it was, employees say, Dittemore's emotional response was invaluable to the shocked space center community.

"He drew out character traits you don't see in normal board meetings. Everyone was proud of the way he spoke," said Studor, a 20-year NASA veteran. "You can be in a tech meeting with him and see the rigor that a logical thinker has, and he can be tough on somebody who doesn't have his stuff together. I think we saw the personal side of him."

A daunting task

As NASA moves to find what went wrong with Columbia and comfort the families of the astronauts, Dittemore, 51, has one of the most daunting tasks of all. In addition to helping find what flaw, if any, officials might have missed in the shuttle, he must reassure the public that NASA is conducting as open and honest a self-examination as it possibly can.

So far, observers say, the grave and focused Dittemore has succeeded in convincing the country that NASA is being more probing and candid than it was after the Challenger explosion in 1986.

"He is the epitome of the leader, the epitome of the flight director, who knows that the buck stops with him," said Eugene F. Kranz, the space center's former director of space operations, who called NASA's response this week sharper than after the Challenger disaster. "He knows that the only way you survive is through absolute, ruthless honesty."

In some ways perhaps, Dittemore's task is more complicated than that of other leaders in the public eye in recent crises, such as then-New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani after Sept. 11, 2001, and Montgomery County police Chief Charles Moose during the sniper attacks last fall. Unlike them, Dittemore must contend with questions about whether there was anything he could have done to prevent the losses; unlike them, he knew all the victims personally.

And unlike them, Dittemore must assure the country that the enterprise he and his colleagues are engaged in is worth continuing.

It is a tall assignment, but those who know Dittemore say he is up to it.

"He's very capable, very dedicated to what he does, and he has the fiber and character to make the tough decisions that have to be made," said Tommy W. Holloway, NASA's previous shuttle program manager and the man Kranz calls Dittemore's mentor. "He doesn't play games with people. He's the man for the job at this hour."

Like many of the engineers at the sprawling space center, Dittemore has committed virtually his entire career to NASA. Born in Cooperstown, N.Y., he grew up in Spokane, Wash., which he still considers home, though he lives with his wife in a suburb near the space center.

Dittemore shared Spokane roots with Michael Anderson, the payload specialist who died aboard the shuttle. The two attended rival high schools in town several years apart.

"We had a very common early beginning, but I told him that I was his pathfinder," Dittemore said Saturday. "I'm going to miss Mike. I'm going to miss the closeness that we had."

Dittemore received bachelor's and master's degrees in aeronautical engineering from the University of Washington. After two years in the private sector, he joined the Johnson Space Center in 1977 as a propulsion systems engineer on the space shuttle.

Integrity, judgment

In 1985, Dittemore was selected as one of NASA's shuttle flight directors, the people responsible for leading individual space missions.