Senate Confirmation Hearing for NASA Administrator Position

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Publication date: 
17 December 2001

Sean O'Keefe's Senate confirmation hearing on December 7 to be the new NASA Administrator went fairly well. Commerce Committee Democrats and Republicans announced their support for the nominee, called for a swift Senate confirmation vote, and pressed O'Keefe to move quickly to the space agency. When he gets there, judging from the questions and answers raised at this hearing, O'Keefe will face significant problems.

Subcommittee chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) described O'Keefe as a "tough fiscal watchdog" who will face difficult choices in what Wyden called a "horrendously mismanaged" space station program. Alluding to a large funding shortfall in the station program, Wyden warned that there "will not be a massive infusion of funds" to NASA during O'Keefe's tenure. In his opening remarks, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) said that the program seemed to be "bleeding billions," and added that Congress must make a conscious decision about the space station. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) was guarded in her opening remarks, telling O'Keefe that "I want you to show more than an OMB mentality" in managing the agency, calling the three-person "core complete" station configuration a red flag. Trent Lott (R-MS) had similar concerns about O'Keefe's management approach to NASA, saying "I hope you don't plan to just phase it down or close it down." Bill Nelson (D-FL) echoed Hutchinson's sentiments.

In opening testimony, O'Keefe said "my qualifications are that of a public administrator." NASA's challenges are of a financial, management, and personnel nature, not scientific. Capitalizing and reinvigorating NASA are his goals. OMB's focus is measurement, and O'Keefe's later testimony reflected that. Success in Washington is too often defined as increasing budgets, he said. "In my mind that tells you nothing," O'Keefe exclaimed, saying that performance and outcomes: "are [what we are] going to be about at NASA."

Wyden's first question was pointed: "how long will it take to drain the swamp at NASA?" O"Keefe replied that a financial assessment was underway, whose results should be known within a few months. When asked how he would define his scientific vision for the agency, O'Keefe responded that by early next year he would enlist the assistance of the scientists from the ISS Management and Cost Evaluation Task Force (see FYI #135) and the directors of the ten NASA centers. Several times during the hearing O'Keefe called for NASA to return to its traditional mission, saying "let's get back to basics" and perform research that no one else does. O'Keefe seeks to reinvigorate the entrepreneurial spirit that characterized project management in NASA's formative stage.

Nelson and Hutchison questioned O'Keefe closely about the Task Force's recommendations for reduced shuttle flights and a smaller station. Hutchison wanted to know if O'Keefe felt that a three-person crew would be the final outcome for the station. O'Keefe did not respond directly, saying that after management was reformed and the basics completed that a decision would then be made. Hutchison protested that with only a three- person crew the program could lose sight of science and research. O'Keefe replied that "worries me more than anything else . . . that is an unacceptable condition." Hutchison told O'Keefe that if he enhanced the science output he would be her hero, if not, "I will be all over you."

Three themes were prominent in this hearing. Senators are unhappy about the management of the space station, and extremely wary about the science implications of a three-person crew. O'Keefe's skills are, as he stated at the outset of the hearing, "that of a public administrator," and he intends to capitalize on those skills. O'Keefe' management approach is clear: "Everything has got to get back to basics."

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