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FYI Number 141: November 19, 2001

O'Keefe Nominated to be New NASA Administrator

"All of the building blocks for a comprehensive and aggressive strategy of reform for NASA are now being placed. If we build this foundation correctly, and I will do everything I can to make sure we do, there should be a significant reduction in the amount of resources needed to carry out what is currently on NASA's plate." - NASA Administrator nominee Sean O'Keefe, November 7, 2001

At a time when continued cost overruns are threatening the scientific capability of the International Space Station, President Bush has nominated a budget and management expert to take over the reins at NASA. To replace Dan Goldin, whose resignation as administrator of the space agency was effective last week, Bush on November 14 nominated Sean O'Keefe, a former Secretary of the Navy, professor of business administration, and congressional staffer.

O'Keefe is currently Deputy Director of the Office of Management and Budget, and has been intimately involved in helping NASA and the White House address the space station's cost troubles. He was influential in the Administration's proposal earlier this year to halt or delay work on space station enhancements that would allow more crew and greater research capacity, and to instead focus available funding on finishing the "core complete" station configuration. He recently testified that the core configuration would be one acceptable end state for the space station program (see FYI #136). Bush's choice of O'Keefe to head NASA instead of a scientist or engineer suggests that the White House wants to focus on improved management and tighter cost control at the agency.

O'Keefe's confirmation by the Senate is not expected to be controversial, although no confirmation hearing has yet been scheduled. If confirmed, he will bring to NASA a close relationship with Vice President Dick Cheney and the Defense Department, and a first-hand knowledge of how Congress operates. O'Keefe, who has a Master's Degree in Public Administration, was Bantle Professor of Business and Government Policy at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs before coming to OMB. Prior to that, O'Keefe served under then- Secretary of Defense Cheney in the first Bush Administration as comptroller and CFO of the Defense Department and, from 1992- 1993, as Secretary of the Navy. In 1993, President Bush and Secretary Cheney presented him with the Distinguished Public Service Award. Before his service in the first Bush Administration, O'Keefe spent eight years as a staffer for the Senate Appropriations Committee, and was staff director for the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee.

At a November 7 House Science Committee hearing, O'Keefe made clear the importance he placed on getting space station costs under control. While praising the technical accomplishments of the program so far, he declared, "technical excellence at any cost is not an acceptable approach." O'Keefe acknowledged that the station's "primary objective" is to "accomplish R&D that can only be obtained by this unique facility." He insisted, however, that "while it may not be optimum," the core configuration would still be a worthwhile accomplishment and should be able to produce good science. "I don't think it's not worth the money," he said. "I think we have to make sure what we get from the program is as good as we can get for the money we spend." He commented that he had talked with OSTP director Jack Marburger, and that OMB and OSTP "will be working closely with NASA and the research community" to set science priorities for the station. He stated that NASA must establish cost and management credibility for the program before the Administration would consider making available any additional resources for enhanced capability. "When and if the time comes to reassess resource needs for the program," he added, "any increases to fund an expanded end-state...must be prioritized against other research activities of the agency and the nation." In his testimony, O'Keefe presented a chart comparing Human Space Flight to NSF research activities, NASA's Earth and Space Science, DOD basic and applied research, DOE science, and the National Cancer Institute, and pointed out that "the annual Federal investment in Human Space Flight is considerable and is significantly more than other major Federal research investments."

In light of the announced retirements of Goldin and NASA's Associate Administrator for Human Space Flight, O'Keefe also testified that "a most important next to provide new leadership for NASA and its Human Space Flight activities. NASA has been well-served by Dan Goldin. New leadership is now necessary to continue moving the ball down the field with the goal line in sight. The Administration recognizes the importance of getting the right leaders in place as soon as possible, and I am personally engaged in making sure that this happens."

At the same hearing, O'Keefe gave some indications of how he views NASA's other activities. He declared the Administration's intention that the station cost growth should not "be offset by cuts to NASA's Space and Earth Science and Aerospace Technology activities." He praised the Offices of Space and Earth Science for their management: "the Human Space Flight elements within NASA would be well-served to learn from NASA's Space Science and Earth Science elements, which have made major strides in addressing scientific priorities, managing to total cost, and appropriately managing risks." Discussing the future of NASA, he mentioned shuttle privatization and the Space Launch Initiative for "a next generation of space access capability."

O'Keefe also indicated his support for government-wide management reforms: "I chair the President's Management Council, which coordinates management reforms and issues across the government. We are beginning to do things that move the full cost of doing business to the agencies.... The user of the Space Station is primarily the research community.... [A]t some point in the future, the science enterprise that primarily uses the Space Station should be given the full-cost management authority over this orbiting laboratory. This way, the Station and other research platforms can be most effectively used for successfully addressing the high priority research objectives."

Upon announcement of O'Keefe's nomination, Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) called O'Keefe "the right man at the right time for this job," and outgoing administrator Goldin praised him as "a man of intelligence, energy and deep integrity." The Science Committee's Ranking Democrat, Ralph Hall (D-TX), urged O'Keefe to remember that the space station must be "a world-class research facility.... Anything less would compromise our space research effort, our relationships with the international partners, and ultimately the entire purpose and rationale of the station program. I look forward to working with the new Administrator to achieve these goals.

Audrey T. Leath
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
(301) 209-3094

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