Transcript of 23 April 2003 Press Teleconference with Ron Dittemore and Mike Kostelnik (Part 1)

Status Report From: NASA HQ
Posted: Wednesday, April 23, 2003








10:00 a.m.Wednesday, April 23, 2003



MODERATOR: Today, we are happy to have with us General Mike Kostelnik, who is our deputy associate administrator for Space Station and Shuttle, and Mr. Ron Dittemore, who is the manager for the Space Shuttle program. They both will have an opening couple of words, a little introduction, and then we will get to Q&A's, and it is my understanding that both Bob and Doc have already given you the guidelines, one question, one follow-up, and we do have people on the line. Because of our timing, we did not have enough time to go to the telephones today, but we will be available later to answer any questions, not Mr. Kostelnik and Mr. Dittemore. They both have planes to catch, but you can call the newsroom and we will try to answer any follow-up questions that you might have later on today.

With that, there will be one question follow-up after we go through the opening statements.

General Kostelnik?

GENERAL KOSTELNIK: Well, good morning, everybody, and thanks for coming out and having this little sit-down with us this morning.

If you recall back early on when we lost Columbia and we had a chance to come and start talking about some of the activities within NASA, if you think back about that time period, one of the things that I kind of offered to you, that space has really more to do with the people involved with the Space program than it really does with the hardware, although there has been a lot of discussion, a little bit more on the various aspects of the Orbiter and the supporting infrastructure and many technical issues about it. The debate about and the discussion about people will be the more important part of that aspect.

Space is very glamorous, and it is easy to be overcome by the magnitude of the physical infrastructure required to achieve human space flight, but the people dimension of this is really the most important part. As important as the Orbiter is to the operation, the people in the program office are really the key to the success we have enjoyed with the program.

We are here on this important day to allow Ron a chance to give you a sense of his plans. I know it has been reported already in the various media over the weekend that Ron has chosen to leave NASA, and I wanted to put this in context with you because this is not a recent decision.

When I came on board this summer, Ron had already been on the program for a long period of time. In fact, he is completing his fourth year in a very tough job, and from my military experience in program managers, typically we only keep program managers in these types of jobs in about this time period. Three or four years is usually enough for a leader to put his mark on a program and enough of a price to pay for the stresses and responsibilities that go along with such an important job.

So, during the fall, Ron and I had been in discussions. They were initiated by him that led to the sense that he thought this would be a good time, this next year, to make this transition, and we had been proceeding along those lines that that transition would have happened early this spring, and then, of course, all of those conversations and discussions and thoughts were put on hold with the loss of Columbia.

Ron, to his credit, much like other NASA individuals, I think I talked to you early on about Frank Buzzard. In fact, the night before Columbia, I retired Frank and presented him his Distinguished Service Award and then return home only the next morning to experience the loss of Columbia and the next day, Mr. Buzzard calling and wanting to say how can I get back involved.

I think that you all know Mr. Buzzard rescinded his retirement, came back, and is actually serving as the head of the Columbia Task Force providing administrative support to the Gehman board, and that is indicative of the way people feel about this mission.

Ron, in the same way, put aside his plans and his thoughts for pursuing opportunities, because there really was a tough job to be done, and I think you all were as much as anybody a beneficiary of his expertise because early on, when there were a lot of questions, Ron Dittemore was the voice of the program for the things that were happening, trying to put in context what we had experienced, trying to put in context with how we were dealing with it.

I think most of you all will agree that Ron during that time period did an outstanding job for relaying some very complex and very technical thoughts in a way that the media could deal with, and I think a lot of the credit that NASA received early on for being open and being forthright and being forthcoming with as much information as we had at the time, a lot of that, we owe to Ron in his role as the program manager. He did an outstanding job in that regard.

Well, the Gehman board has been on work. That work continues. As you know, we have right-sized our supporting infrastructure in the way of the NASA accident investigation team replacing the former Mishap Response Team, responding to the technical analysis and request of the Gehman board.

We are now into a period where a lot of good work has been done. I think as we move forward over the next month or so, we are expecting to get some results from the board. I think, as you know, we have already received two formal recommendations, and, of course, those activities are in work to deal with those recommendations. We expect to get more as the board settles on things that they decide. So we are reaching a point where sometime later this spring or early this summer, we are going to complete this analysis and get the final report card.

So we have reached now a point of equilibrium where the program office is nearing the end of its supporting analysis, although there is more to continue. We have attained a comfort in kind of where we are going and meeting the needs of the board, and we expect to get the results from them reasonably soon.

So it did create an opportunity then for Ron to revisit his earlier thoughts and to think about giving the impact of Colombia, where would the right time be for him to make this transition that he had planned last year and, in fact, had now postponed for some amount of time, to his credit, to deal with the situation.

For a lot of reasons, he has elected to make this announcement now. So NASA from a headquarters perspective can do an orderly and an effective transition. This is a very big job. This program is the single largest program within NASA. I think the annual budget is on the order of $3.5 billion, and although the Station is a large program as well, this would be much more significant in terms of dollar value. It is a tough program management job that requires a lot of experience.

In fact, Ron spent more than 21 years at NASA doing a wide variety of jobs with the Shuttle and Station programs at the Johnson Space Center through all various facets to acquire the depth and breadth of experience that has allowed him to do such a great job in this program. So replacing him is not going to be an easy task.

Again, to Ron's credit, he has given us in the way he has chosen to make this announcement a very graceful transition period to allow us to effectively replace him. This will allow us the time to get the results from the Gehman board. He is going to allow us the time to get the initial inputs from our return-to-flight team that we now have established under the leadership of Jim Halsell, supported by Ron and working with his people in the program office at the Johnson Space Center. So that will allow us an opportunity not only to find just the right individual we are looking for to replace Ron, and we will be looking both within the agency and on the national scene for just that type of talent with the requisite experience and depth and breadth of experience that can do this very important job.

The way that Ron has chosen to make this announcement will allow us the time to find this individual, to hire him, and to have some time in transition such that the lessons that Ron has learned over his four years in the program can be invested with this new leader and then the new leader can then proceed on with the return-to-flight formal planning, and that will start the stage for a new administration to take the Space Shuttle into the next facet of his career.

So, with that as a background, I just want to say from an agency perspective, this is not something that we would have asked for or had wished. I think Ron has done an outstanding job, and I have worked with a lot of program managers, both now within NASA, and clearly my former life within the Department of Defense. I have been extremely expressed with his performance as a high-level, very credible and capable program manager.

In fact, not only is it my assessment, but I think that you all know most recently, Ron as individually recognized for his leadership and his program management by Aviation Week and the Laureate Award for the mission accomplishments during 2002. I think that speaks well of our assessment, although Columbia was, in fact, a tragedy of epic proportion that will be with us for a long time, and we will continue to live with the legacy of Columbia in the same way that we have with Challenger and learn from that experience.

The people associated at NASA, I think, when this is all through, I will go back to what I said. It is that the people are doing a very tough job, a job that is not without its risk, and it takes a certain kind of individual day in and day out to step up to the challenge not only the big program management job, but one that has human life on the line. It is not very often that we ask people in this country to do this. Certainly, in the military with the ongoing activities overseas, it is a normal part of that business, but it is not a normal part of other businesses in this country.

So it is a unique role, and although we are sad to se Ron choose to go at this time, we know it is the right kind of thing for him if he chooses to do that, and I am going to wish him all the well as he pursues other opportunities downstream, and we are grateful not only for his 26 years of service and the last four years at the program management level, but over the past few months and in the things he will continue to do as we lead up to his departure in return-to-flight. We are very thankful for his continuing contributions in a very tough job.

So with that, I will offer Ron an opportunity to give you his perspective on his leave.

MR. DITTEMORE: Thanks, Mike, and thanks for those very kind words.

You know, jobs like these are difficult, and when you first come into a job like the program manager for Space Shuttle, you recognize that you have a tremendous opportunity. You get to work with some of the most capable and creative people ever gathered together in one place for one common cause, but you also recognize that you cannot do it forever.

Last summer, my wife and I and our family discussed the possibilities of the future and felt that at the time, it was over three years and approaching the fourth year in the program that it was time for us to consider other opportunities. That is when the dialogue began with Mike and others in the agency about the possibilities and potential of leaving early in the spring of 2003.

Mike has summarized, I think, those events accurately.

As the events unfolded in February, certainly all personal plans had to take a back seat, and as the last two months have unfolded and now I see that we are starting to move into a different realm of our investigation, which is really we are starting to gear up on our return-to-flight activities, with the announcement of Jim Halsell as the leader of our return-to-flight planning team and our focus now in trying to gather the findings as they are distributed to us on a piecemeal basis by the board. We in the program with Jim Halsell and these interim findings by the board are starting to gear up and to perform the work necessary to return to flight as soon as we can. So there is a lot of activities that are starting to progress more and beyond the investigation.

As I looked at that, it seemed to me it was appropriate to talk with Mike again and pick this time to make a transition in leadership.

I think the coming months of return-to-flight activities and responding to recommendations and implementing corrective action is going to be a formative time frame for the Space Shuttle program, and it would be very important to have new leadership in place to have that foundation established.

As you move forward over the coming months building on that foundation from a new leader perspective, you are going to be that much more prepared, both from a leadership point of view and a team responding to that leadership, to move right into return-of-flight, resumption of flight activities, and then picking up the flight rate again.

I believe personally that this transition time frame would be extremely beneficial to allow this new leader the time to prepare, the time to respond to recommendations, the time to implement recommendations, to have a strong foundation, strong springboard to jump forward into the coming years. After speaking with Mike and others, we agreed that it was a good time to at least announce and allow this process to start going with a little bit more excitement, a little more visibility, and allow people the opportunity to transition into this idea of change in leadership.

It is not something where I am going to step out of the program instantaneously. In fact, that is not what I want to do. I want it to be an orderly transition. I want it to be a transition period where I can communicate some of the lessons that I have learned over the past four years as program manager and over the last 10 years as a member of the Space Shuttle program office.

I believe this program is extremely important, and the leadership that does follow me needs to have the opportunity to get that strong foundation, what is absolutely critical in this program that we have talked to you about before, a clear understanding of the checks and balances that are necessary for us to operate safely, a clear understanding of the roles and responsibilities between centers, organizations, engineering, projects, program elements, safety emission assurance. All those types of organizations play their distinctive and unique role, and the new leadership needs to understand those carefully and soundly. This transition period will allow a new leadership to do that.

So it is with that spirit in mind that we come forward today and make this announcement.

MODERATOR: Thank you very much.

We will take some questions now. Frank?

QUESTIONER: Question for General Kostelnik. Frank [inaudible] with Aerospace America magazine. General, are you considering moving Space Shuttle program management to Washington headquarters?

GENERAL KOSTELNIK: No. In fact, with the current management structure that we created with creating the new position that I am in last summer, that actually did provide the top-level, program-executive-officer-type approach that we really wanted in the management structure. It really would be a mistake, I think, to do the kind of program management that Ron has been doing in that leadership role from Washington. You need to have the program office resources, and you need the leader in the field.

So we are very comfortable with the organization we have, where you have a headquarters-type program executive officer function on the DOD role model, hosted here in Washington, working the relationships on the Hill with the oversight activities, providing the typical headquarters function of oversight, insight, mentoring, and working obviously the budget issues throughout the year, and leaving the details of the technical program management issues rightfully where the technical expertise lives.

We created a very powerful management information system that provides the same information that Ron and his senior managers look at hear in the headquarters, and we are all dealing off the same source data. Ron and his replacement do the day-to-day program management activities which is heavily driven by experience base, and then allows us to provide the top cover here, to provide the budgetary support, and provide the added kind of thing.

So, unless something comes out formally from the gaming board that would offer or direct us to do something else, certainly we would consider those recommendations if something like that comes from the board.

Right now, I think we have a really good management relationship, and I think that during the past year, the creation of this position here and the small supporting staff and the creation of the management information system, it has really gone a long way towards improving the overall performance of the program.

It applies to International Space Station as well, and that relationship is working equally well.

MODERATOR: Let me remind yourselves, please, and who you represent.


QUESTIONER: Tracy [inaudible] with USA Today.

To Mr. Dittemore, board members had talked pretty extensively in the public hearings about the normalization of risk, and they are feeling that this may have taken place inside the Space Shuttle program. From your perspective, do you think that has happened?

MR. DITTEMORE: Well, I think I should not comment on board findings or even interim board findings.

It has been my role over the last two months to make sure the proper resources are applied to the investigation to support the board and all their activities, and I certainly don't want to comment or speculate on any of their findings at this point.

The findings will be the findings. We will respond to each one of the recommendations. We are anxious to do so. We are involved with them on a day-to-day basis. Our team is supporting their direction and their leadership, and it would be premature for me to comment, and I won't do so. QUESTIONER: Ron, Frank Morring [ph] with Aviation Week.

Administrator O'Keefe has talked about a need for greater tracking of trends in the Shuttle program. You are talking about passing along lessons learned to your successor. Do you have some lessons in this area that you might have thought about that you could pass along, how you can do a better job of tracking tends that might come up and bite you?

MR. DITTEMORE: Well, of course, tracking trends is in the eye of the beholder, and it is a difficult job because, if you look at the way our program is structured, we have, say, six or seven hardware elements in different locations. They have different databases of anomalies that may have happened either in manufacturing or in production or even processing.

We linked those databases together today, but perhaps that linkage is not as optimized as it could be, and we are going to have to take a look at that to do a better job of trending and understanding these events that occur. They just don't occur. There is a lot of things that happen in this program that are not very visible, and they happen at the manufacturing facility and they happen in processing. We deal with these events on a day-to-day basis.

Then what is more visible are what we call "in-flight anomalies." In-flight anomalies really are the peak of the pyramid, or ice berg if you want to think about it that way. They are relatively small in number. The large number of activities and events that we deal with are processing or development or manufacturing, and it is looking at that large number of events and understanding them and trending them, not only individual single elements, but across elements is what we are looking at, and I think that is what Mr. O'Keefe was noting and also that is what I would note as something that we should look at and see if we can improve on that.

QUESTIONER: You had a serious in-flight anomaly on STS-112. I guess I am asking you for the genius of hindsight, but would you have handled that foam strike 112 differently, knowing what you know today, and how would you have handled it differently?

MR. DITTEMORE: I don't know what you mean by "differently."

As a result of the foam strike in STS-112, there were actions that were given to the appropriate individuals, elements, to discuss that particular strike, to understand its impact. There were actions to discuss both at our change-board within the program and at the level of one flight readiness review. So that scenario and repercussions of that scenario were briefed across the program and to senior agency management in the flight readiness review, and it was a healthy discussion. So I consider that an appropriate response to an event. Now, whether or not we nailed everything down 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 should at the time, and we will develop lessons learned from that activity.


QUESTIONER: Gwen [inaudible], Orlando Sentinel.

Are the other opportunities that you are planning to pursue in the aerospace industry, and if so, have you discussed or obtained a waiver from the Government to do that?

MR. DITTEMORE: I think my focus right now, Gwenith, is to do what I am doing today, and that is continue to manage this program and allow the agency time to select a successor.

My focus is on this transition period, continuing to support the investigation process with the appropriate resources.

My priority is the work force, making sure the work force is working on the appropriate things and that we are concentrating on return-to-flight in addition to recommendations that will come from the board.

And the last thing on my priority list is my personal opportunities. I have invested most of my career in the human spaceflight business. I feel passionately about it. I think it is the right thing for us as a nation to do. I think it offers many side benefits to our society, and I think it is our destiny to do these types of thing. I would hope that as I consider opportunities that those opportunities would remain in human spaceflight, since there is where I feel emotionally attached and have that passion.


QUESTIONER: Keith Cowing NASA Watch. I want to ask a question of Mr. Dittemore.

About two years ago, there was a report that you commissioned on possible fall once the USA's contract was supporting Shuttle, and it included a lot of movement of civil service responsibility out of Government into the private sector.

Given what happened two months ago, do you still go with that view? Do you think that maybe more civil service oversight is needed in the program?

MR. DITTEMORE: I think that as the findings of the board come forward, together with their findings and some of our own beliefs, we are going to formulate a plan to respond to whether or not we need more civil servants or not.

I have talked to Mike about that at length, and that is certainly going to be a subject that is on Mike's plate and the program's plate to understand whether or not we have the appropriate number of civil servants to support the program or whether or not we need to increase that to increase our oversight in the coming years.

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