updated 1/4/2007 6:12:19 PM ET 2007-01-04T23:12:19

The man who oversaw the space shuttle program's return to flight after the deadly 2003 Columbia accident took over on Thursday as director of the Kennedy Space Center in central Florida.

William Parsons, 49, succeeds Jim Kennedy, who is retiring.

Parsons most recently served as the director of NASA's Stennis Space Center in Mississippi but his most visible role was as manager of the space shuttle program while NASA recovered from the Columbia accident.

Parsons, who joined NASA in 1990, was in charge while major modifications were made to the space shuttle's external fuel tanks, blamed for the loss of Columbia and its seven-member crew.

His efforts did not go far enough and a redesigned tank failed its high-profile debut flight in July 2005. Large pieces of foam debris flew off shuttle Discovery's fuel tank during that launch, much like what had happened during Columbia's flight.

Columbia's left wing was hit by falling foam and damaged. It broke apart 16 days later as the shuttle flew through the atmosphere for landing.

The U.S. space agency was luckier with Discovery. The falling debris flew harmlessly past the shuttle. Parsons, however, immediately grounded the fleet again for additional repairs.

It took another year of work before the shuttles were ready to fly again. Since then, the new tanks have successfully flown three missions.

In his new role, Parsons will oversee a 17,000-member NASA and contractor work force that must finish flying the remaining pieces of the International Space Station into orbit before the shuttles are retired in 2010.

At the same time, NASA is moving ahead with development of a new launch system and capsules that are being designed to ferry astronauts and cargo from the seaside Kennedy Space Center to the moon.

"He's the right person to take Kennedy Space Center through the end of the shuttle era and into the era of lunar exploration," NASA administrator Mike Griffin said in a statement.

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