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.
In 1985, Dittemore was selected as one of NASA's shuttle flight directors, the people responsible for leading individual space missions.
Kranz says that it was under Holloway - who was the chief of flight directors before he became program manager - that Dittemore learned the leadership skills needed to be promoted in 1992 into the shuttle program administration. In 1999, Dittemore was appointed to lead the program when Holloway left to lead the space station effort.
"You have to have an incredibly solid technical background, you have to be a team builder at the same time as a team member, you have to have superior judgment," said Kranz. "And you need integrity. The team won't follow you unless you're a whole person, knowing the difference between right and wrong, and selecting a path."
Colleagues say Dittemore's strengths as program director have carried into his public briefings, where he's been forthright and even blunt without sounding defensive. At times, the briefings have resembled college seminars, with Dittemore acting the patient professor, speaking to reporters with a high level of detail, refusing to condescend.
Even as Dittemore has endured scrutiny, some of his employees chafe at the suggestion that he and other supervisors might have overlooked a fatal flaw in the shuttle, such as the thermal tiles that may have been damaged by a chunk of insulation that broke off from the spacecraft's external tank during launch.
"The managers who deal with safety are responsible people. They don't just shrug something off for whatever reason. They make decisions based on good data and judgment," said Gorman Prince Jr., who monitors safety in the main propulsion system.
Added engineer William Arsenaux, "I've always known Ron to do the right thing, the right way. He's exceptional at that, and making other people feel it's important to do the right thing."
In demeanor, Dittemore melds well with the low-key ethic of the space center campus, where engineers in short-sleeve shirts and nondesigner ties carry blueprints along tree-lined paths, looking as if they might have stepped from the 1950s. He's serious, Prince said, "but a little humor comes through - he's not stone-faced."
But even his mentor, Holloway, knows little of Dittemore's life outside work. Dittemore's two children are in college and graduate school. His son, who called his father immediately after the disaster, is studying to become a flight director.
Professional as he may be, NASA leaders say it shouldn't come as a surprise to see Dittemore betraying his feelings in the briefings. For many at NASA, they say, emotion lies just below the surface, because all are constantly aware of the personal stakes of space exploration and prepared at any moment to suffer disaster.
Kranz recalled what it felt like to be at the space center at the time of the first space disaster, the capsule fire aboard Apollo 1 that killed three astronauts in 1967. Those involved, he said, relied on "the inner strength that comes from our deep conviction in this work" and wrote up a proclamation for themselves, to "recognize that what matters is not trying and failing, but that in trying, we gave our best effort."
Dittemore said yesterday that he's been trying to do just that, seeking solace by reading e-mail late at night from all around the country, realizing that he has the support of its people.
"A wise person told me a long time ago that true character is revealed when you come face to face with reality and adversity," Dittemore said. "Certainly, the last few days have been a real challenge to us personally."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun