In a revealing response, when asked by House Science Committee
leaders about his vision for NASA, new Administrator Sean O'Keefe
replied that he hoped the space agency would be viewed as "a
leading agency in the federal government for implementing...the
President's Management Agenda." He said he intended to oversee
an agency that was run "as efficiently as I know how" and,
added, "that is driven by science." Having been on the job
NASA for just eight weeks at the time of the hearing, O'Keefe, a
business and management expert, indicated he was pleasantly
surprised at the "unbridled energy, enthusiasm, and creativity"
he found among NASA employees.
While the purpose of the February 27 hearing was to receive
O'Keefe's testimony on NASA's FY 2003 budget request, most of the
discussion revolved around plans for the International Space
Station. The committee members had varying opinions about many
NASA issues, but most agreed that the space station should have a
full complement of crew and the scientific capacity to accomplish
the research originally intended. Other questioning involved the
level of U.S. investment in aerospace R&D, cuts to the space
shuttle budget, cooperation with DOD on launch technologies, and
at what point the committee would be informed of agency plans and
decisions that would influence the upcoming NASA reauthorization
legislation. Few questions addressed space or Earth science
As Deputy Director of OMB last year, O'Keefe was instrumental in
pushing a plan that would only commit the U.S. to constructing
the "core complete" space station configuration with a crew
three astronauts, while gaining a better understanding of the
project's costs, engineering requirements, and scientific
priorities. Once these challenges were better understood and
management reforms undertaken, a decision would be made on
whether to fund what O'Keefe now referred to as "excursions"
beyond core complete, possibly including additional science
capacity, a crew return vehicle, and a habitation module.
O'Keefe expected to have a firmer cost estimate of the core
complete station by this summer. There were some prickly
exchanges as he defended this approach to committee members who
wanted the Administration to commit now to the more extensive
"assembly complete" version of the station. Ranking Minority
Member Ralph Hall (D-TX) charged that achieving cost savings "by
eliminating the very capabilities that make the space station
worth doing in the first place seems a little misguided to me."
He pointed to numerous previous studies prioritizing the research
goals of the station and stated, "I can't believe you're saying"
that 15 years' worth of scientific advice "is wrong and these
distinguished scientists...didn't know what they were doing."
Hall asked whether the core complete configuration fulfills the
U.S.'s obligations to its international partners. O'Keefe could
not give a definitive answer, but assured Hall that NASA's
current plans would comply with all agreements through the core
Rep. Bart Gordon (D-TN) noted that the budget request did not
provide an estimate of future, or "outyear," funding for new
Earth Observing System missions, pending a review of the entire
U.S. Global Change Research Program. O'Keefe said his agency was
not leading that review, and he did not know when it would be
completed. Rep. Nick Smith (R-MI) pointed out that many
scientists feel robotic space exploration programs are more
efficient than manned missions; O'Keefe agreed that, because of
the risks of space flight, unmanned missions are preferable and
astronauts should only be used when absolutely necessary. Rep.
Vern Ehlers (R-MI) commented that NASA was spending less on
science today, in real dollars, than ten years ago, and asked how
O'Keefe intended to increase funding for science. O'Keefe
responded that achieving efficiencies in overhead, infrastructure
and operations costs would enable greater spending on science.
That's the reason, he explained, that he is "absolutely dogged
my commitment to implementing the President's Management Agenda."
O'Keefe added that the space station itself was infrastructure,
"a means to an end." Rep. John Larson (D-CT) asked about
termination of the Pluto-Kuiper Belt mission; O'Keefe said he
chose to delay the mission and instead put resources into
developing improved power and propulsion technologies so a future
mission would not take as long to accomplish. "The problem isn't
the mission...or what we can learn," he said, but the span of
time it would take to start receiving data.
Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) reiterated the point that research
priorities should drive the space station configuration, rather
than being dictated by a chosen configuration. O'Keefe agreed
and said he would work with Congress to determine the appropriate
program needs and priorities. "Whatever it costs to do a program
that we can all be proud of" and that "we'll all be committed
to," he said, "that's what the President's budget will sign
"You've outlined a very ambitious agenda," said Chairman
Boehlert (R-NY), "and we want to help you get there." He added
that the committee wanted to see space station construction
proceed beyond core complete: "we want a true science investment
for the future."