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FYI Number 45: April 16, 2002

O'Keefe Presents His Vision for NASA

Several months into his tenure as NASA Administrator, Sean O'Keefe laid out his vision for the space agency in an April 12 speech. O'Keefe spoke at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, where he earned his Master's degree in public administration and later taught. O'Keefe was joined by NY Republican Reps. James Walsh, whose district includes Syracuse University and who chairs the House VA/HUD Appropriations Subcommittee, which is responsible for the NASA budget, and by House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert.

Excerpts from O'Keefe's speech are highlighted below. Some headings have been added for clarity, and many paragraphs have been combined in the interests of space. The full speech, which runs about 17 pages, is available at While this speech does not go into detail about how he plans to address the space station's cost difficulties, O'Keefe has previously testified on this subject before Congress (see FYI #28).

"Part of my job as Administrator is to remind everyone of what NASA does and what we are capable of doing. It's a responsibility I take very seriously. I believe we are at a crossroad in NASA's history.... We have an opportunity here and now to reinvigorate the agenda and renew the entrepreneurial spirit present at NASA's beginning a continued characteristic of American culture. Some believe NASA has lost its focus and that the pioneering spirit, the excitement of NASA's mission is gone. But believe me, that spirit is alive and well. We intend to nourish it.

"The Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg said, 'The effort to understand the universe is one of the very few things that lifts human life a little above the level of farce and gives it some of the grace of tragedy.' Our effort to understand the universe is to answer the most fundamental of questions. How did we get here? Where are we going? Are we alone?

"What NASA needs now is a roadmap to continue our work in a more efficient, collaborative manner. Our imperative is not only for the sake of knowledge it is for our future and our security. Today I am introducing a new strategic framework and vision for NASA. It is a blueprint for the future of exploration. It is a roadmap for achievement that we hope will improve the lives of everyone in this country and everyone on this planet. That is a bold statement, I know. But, I am confident in saying this because the unique work that NASA does truly touches all of our lives."

VISION FOR THE FUTURE: "This is NASA's vision for the future. Our mandate is: to improve life here, to extend life to there, to find life beyond.

"To improve life here is self-explanatory. From medical devices to better tires, many of the products we use and experience every day have their originsin NASA technology. The American taxpayers' investment in NASA pays off every day in spin-off technology. But that's not enough.... Now more than ever in our recent history, it is important that we look at our country as whole, rallying our assets and talents toward common goals. NASA's capabilities can be marshaled to support the goal of providing for our security.

"The second point in the vision is to extend life to there. Where is there? Everybody has a favorite candidate - and that's a good thing - but wherever we want to go, we currently have a limited means to get there and we must overcome these limitations.

"We will go where the science dictates that we go, not because it's close or popular. We are going where the fundamental questions that we seek to answer take us. That's the big change. NASA's mission, which I'll discuss in a moment, must be driven by the science, not by destination. And while policy and politics and economics are inevitable factors, science must be the preeminent factor.

"And that leads me to the final point in the vision - to find life beyond. That is the fundamental, most compelling question known to humankind. Are we alone in the universe?... NASA, with telescopes, space-borne observatories, robotic and human explorers, we will find out."

MISSION STATEMENT: "So, how do we get to that impressive picture of the future? Part of the answer is by executing NASA's mission: To understand and protect our home planet; to explore the Universe and search for life; to inspire the next generation of only NASA can.... Let me explain what this mission statement means and how it charts our direction for the future."

"To understand and protect our home planet: We have come to understand that the only way to really comprehend our climate and to protect the scarce resources of our little blue planet is to look at the Earth as a single, whole system.... From the unique vantage point of space we can see, and more importantly, predict, how dust storms in the Sahara will affect crops in the American Midwest. From the unique vantage point of space we can predict how mosquito-borne diseases will spread. From the unique vantage point of space we can tell a farmer what part of her field needs fertilizer and which part does not.

"The mission is to understand and protect our planet. Protection includes using our scarce resources to improve life on Earth by living in an environmentally sound manner. NASA's contribution will be to help collect the data the President has called for to frame the policy choices we must consider to meet the challenges of climate change and establish responsible international environmental standards. Protection of our planet also includes changing our transportation systems on Earth so that they are friendly, efficient and environmentally safe.... Protection of our home planet includes sharing NASA's unique technology and imagery with other government agencies, academia and industry, to thwart those who seek to do harm or arrest trends that diminish our quality of life."

"To the second theme: To explore the Universe and search for life.... NASA will use its technology to explore, first with robotic trailblazers, and eventually humans as driven by these compelling scientific questions: How did we get here? Where are we going? Are we alone?

"Next year we will launch the Space InfraRed Telescope Facility, or SIRTF, the last of NASA's four Great Observatories.... SIRTF will do for infrared astronomy what the Hubble Space Telescope has done in its unveiling of the visible universe.

"The Galaxy Evolution Explorer, or GALEX scheduled to launch later this year will use an ultraviolet telescope during its two-year mission to explore the origin and evolution of galaxies and the origins of stars and heavy elements.... These are just two of a host of planned missions that will continue to force the rewriting of the textbooks...

"Our third mission: To inspire the next generation of explorers. Our mission of understanding and protecting our home planet and exploring the Universe and searching for life will not be carried out if we don't have the people do to it. Today, America has a serious shortage of young people entering the fields of mathematics and science.... We would be remiss in our public trust if we do nothing to reverse this trend of scientific proficiency.... What we have done in our vision of the future and its mission roadmap is to make education a core mission element."

"That brings me to the last part of the mission statement we do all these things AS ONLY NASA CAN.... The fact is that there are things that only NASA can do and they would not get done if NASA does not do them. But we have to avoid getting distracted with challenges that call for simply incremental or marginal improvements we must be dedicated to overcoming limits by finding entirely new ways to achieve objectives.

"The biggest difference is that the mission is SCIENCE-DRIVEN and that it will be carried out in a new commitment to fiscal responsibility and wise use of our assets, and with the synergy that comes from working with other government agencies, industry and academia."

PRESIDENT'S MANAGEMENT AGENDA: "We will carry out these grand objectives under the program set out by the President in his management agenda. NASA, along with the rest of the federal government, will be: Citizen-centered, results-oriented, market-based, actively promoting innovation through competition, and by focusing on that which only NASA can do and avoid duplicating that which may be achievable elsewhere. The President has called for a government that is active but limited; one that focuses on priorities and does them well.

"That same spirit is being brought to the work of management reform. Rather than pursue an array of management initiatives, the President has elected to identify the government's most glaring problems and solve them. The President's Management Agenda is a starting point for management reform, and the guide to NASA's own reform in the way we do business, improving performance and in the way we meet our objectives.

"Let me say a few words about how our vision for the future and our mission statement, carried out under the terms of the President's Management Agenda, will affect what you will see coming from NASA in the next few years. The big sea change is two-fold. First, as I said when I began this talk is the move to science-driven missions. We will let the science of exploration and discovery tell us where to go next. Second is to use technology to enable advances and to view this as step functions to facilitate greater achievements.

"For example, there is a necessary link and connection between our human space flight program and our work in robotics. NASA must eliminate the stovepipes and build an integrated strategy that links human space flight and robotic space flight in a stepping stone approach to exploration and discovery. The synergy this will create is truly exciting. Serendipity is a big player in invention and discovery; so is thinking outside the box. Who knows what great things will come from having exobiologists work with human factors specialists? The possibilities are infinite. And, on the bean-counting side...this approach leverages our resources tremendously. In the next few years you will see robotic precursor missions and crosscutting technologies developed to support exploration and learning on the part of both humans and robots."

"...[T]he American people expect us to make good use of our resources that is, our tax dollars. Our roadmap for the future does just that. After the Mars mission setbacks, NASA undertook a very critical assessment of what happened and the process that lead to that failure. We are undertaking a similar critical assessment started when it became clear that the space station program was over-budget and are making changes. We learn from our mistakes, correct the problems, and move on.... We are doing things that have never been done before. Mistakes, incorrect estimates, unforeseen problems are going to happen. If everything were to move along without a hitch I would be suspicious that we are not being bold enough, not fulfilling our mandate to push the envelope."

"But a prudent exercise of risk management requires the focus on a few absolutes. First, we must be selective in our pursuits, which require NASA's unique talent. Being selective and focused assures that we concentrate on working through the risks. Second, we need to establish 'stretch goals' which will be risky by definition but then again, if they weren't, others would be pursuing them. But in selecting goals we must be honest with ourselves as to the efforts and resources that will be required. And once attained, we must manage these outcomes responsibly and continually improve performance."

"As I've been telling you today, NASA has to do things differently in the future. One fundamental difference is a need to find new ways to explore the galaxy. Conventional rockets and fuel simply aren't practical as we reach further out into the cosmos. That's why we are launching an initiative to explore the use of nuclear propulsion.... The technology is there. We just need to take it to the next step to increase speed and on-orbit time, thereby beginning to overcome this persistent technical limitation. If we're going to pioneer the future as only NASA can, we're going to need new ways to get us there."

EDUCATION MISSION: "A theme I've sought to weave through the talk today has been the contributions and dedication of our people. This way we have made not only inspiration, but also education, a core mission component.... It is time for NASA to complete the mission to send an educator into space to inspire and teach our young people. To achieve that goal, shortly after completion of the core elements of the International Space Station, expected in 2004, I am pleased to announce Barbara Morgan has been selected to begin her mission as the first Educator Mission Specialist. Mrs. Morgan's mission will be the first of a series of flights in the new Educator Mission Specialist Program. Working in partnership with Education Secretary Rod Paige, we will soon release the details of our national recruitment program for follow-on missions."

"From the astronauts, to the scientists, to the engineers, to the people who provide administrative support, and now, to the educators, this agency's greatest strength is the people who devote their lives to NASA. We have an obligation in fact, a sacred trust to keep that spirit alive, to ensure that there WILL be a next generation of explorers. This is NASA's new vision for the future: To improve life here, to extend life to there, to find life beyond. This is the roadmap our people will follow into this new millennium."

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

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