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Sources: Dittemore Leaving NASA

Philadelphia Phillies starting pitcher Cliff Lee reacts after striking out Los Angeles Dodgers' Russell Martin to end the top of the eighth inning of Game 3 in the National League Championship baseball series Sunday, Oct. 18, 2009, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
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Shuttle program manager Ronald Dittemore, the clean-cut, straight-talking engineer whose daily briefings in the wake of the Columbia disaster won widespread respect, plans to leave NASA in the near future, sources say, presumably to take a job in private industry. Calls to Dittemore's home Friday evening and Saturday were not successful and NASA officials were not immediately available for comment.

Reliable NASA and contractor sources, however, said Dittemore made plans to leave the space agency before Columbia's ill-fated mission and that he had planned to step down once the flight was complete. Those plans changed in the wake of the Feb. 1 disaster and he remained on the job to help coordinate NASA's investigation of the tragedy.

Dittemore's daily briefings lasted just a week before the independent Columbia Accident Investigation Board took over the public conduct of the accident probe. But Dittemore's willingness to share initial flight data and to answer questions in a public forum was in stark contrast to NASA's no-comment response to the 1986 Challenger disaster 17 years earlier.

While some NASA insiders privately groused about Dittemore's openness, many more praised his performance, crediting him with convincing skeptics that NASA had the right stuff to deal with the disaster.

"Let me say it is with some relief that I welcome (the accident board) here," Dittemore said Feb. 6, in his final news briefing. "We need their expertise, we need their independent look at what we have been doing and we will work closely with (board chairman Harold Gehman) and his board.

"These five days have been exhausting to the team. They have been difficult emotionally and physically. But we're going to carry on and we're going to continue our determination to find the root cause and do so as quickly and reasonably as we can."

As a senior NASA manager, Dittemore would need a waiver from agency Administrator Sean O'Keefe before taking any job in which he would be representing a shuttle contractor in any future negotiations with the government. Without such a waiver - and they are rare - senior managers must wait a year before taking on such jobs.

The specifics in this case are not yet known, but the loss of Dittemore's firm hand at the helm of the shuttle program will be keenly felt.

"He did a good job, Ron is a solid manager," said one senior aerospace manager. "One of his traits was he was not unwilling to make hard decisions. He made decisions that weren't always popular, but they were the right thing to do."

Dittemore joined NASA in 1977 as a shuttle propulsion systems engineer, became a flight controller and ultimately a shuttle flight director. In 1992, he was named deputy assistant director of the space station program before transitioning to shuttle program management the following year.

In 1995, Dittemore became manager of space shuttle integration and served as chairman of NASA's mission management team, which oversees the day-to-day conduct of a shuttle mission. He was serving as manager of the shuttle engineering office when he was named to replace Tommy Holloway as overall manager of the shuttle program in 1999.

"The space shuttle is more reliable, more capable and more efficient today than ever before," Dittemore said in a statement when he took on the program management job. "At the same time, with assembly of the station, the shuttle has a bigger job ahead of it than ever before. As we do that job, above all, my goal is to fly the shuttle safely and continue the tradition of excellence that has been instilled in this program.

"The shuttle has a lot of life ahead with the capability to continue to fly for decades to come, and we plan to continue to make it as safe and efficient as possible as we build the station and prepare for the future."

CBS News Space Consultant William Harwood has covered America's space program full time for more than 15 years, focusing on space shuttle operations, planetary exploration and astronomy. Based at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Harwood provides up-to-the-minute space reports for CBS News and regularly contributes to Spaceflight Now and The Washington Post. He wrote this story for CBS News Space Place.
by William Harwood