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NASA's O'Keefe to Resign; Ex-Missile Defense Chief Tops List of Contenders

CAPE CANAVERAL -- NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe will resign this week, and the retired director of the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency tops a list of five men that President Bush is considering to take over the space agency, FLORIDA TODAY has learned.

Louisiana State University is aggressively recruiting O'Keefe to become the Baton Rouge, La., school's next chancellor. O'Keefe said he is interested in the job, and school officials told FLORIDA TODAY a deal could be made this week.

Meanwhile, a White House team is weighing five candidates and plans to announce O'Keefe's departure and pick a new NASA administrator by Thursday, according to a source familiar with the selection process.

Leading the president's list: Air Force Lt. Gen. Ronald Kadish, who retired in September after three years as the director of the United States' effort to develop a system to shield the country and its troops from a missile attack.

The other four men under consideration are former Congressman Robert Walker and former shuttle astronauts Ron Sega, Charles Bolden and Robert Crippen.

The change of command at NASA comes as the agency struggles to return its shuttles to space after a two-year grounding prompted by the loss of Columbia and its seven astronauts, and just as it starts on a new mission to send human explorers to the moon and Mars.

O'Keefe formally applied for the LSU job Saturday afternoon, less than 24 hours after telling FLORIDA TODAY he was interested in the position.

A string of bureaucratic steps must be taken first, both in Washington and in Louisiana.

However, the university could be ready to offer O'Keefe the job within a week, said Charles Zewe, a spokesman for the Louisiana State University System's Board of Supervisors.

"They are doing a full-court press to get him," Zewe said. LSU System President William Jenkins and Board of Supervisors Chairman Stewart Slack "heavily recruited" him.

O'Keefe, a native of New Orleans, acknowledged the university's overtures late Friday night during a brief telephone interview with FLORIDA TODAY. He declined to discuss when or why he might leave the space agency. O'Keefe is expected to be in Louisiana later this week to go through a state-mandated formal interview process and meet with university leaders, faculty and students.

The state university is seeking a new leader as it embarks on an initiative to become one of the nation's elite institutions.

O'Keefe is attractive because of his high profile, his connections in Washington and leadership of NASA and the Navy during times of crisis and transformation. His term as deputy director of the White House Office of Management and Budget and extensive experience in academia also set him apart.

"LSU considers O'Keefe an extremely strong candidate," Zewe said Saturday. "He brings a vast amount of political, academic and management skill. He has been a fixer for the administration and he has done a marvelous job in a difficult and emotional times."

O'Keefe became Secretary of the Navy in the wake of the Tailhook sexual harassment scandal and led a cultural reformation there under the first President Bush. After a stint at Syracuse University, he returned to Washington to work at OMB. Almost a year after taking office, the current President Bush asked O'Keefe to take over a troubled NASA.

The agency had overspent on the International Space Station by more than $5 billion, a surprise revelation that angered Congress and forced Bush to place the agency on a sort of financial probation and downsize the space station.

Just as O'Keefe was getting the station project back on track and winning financial credibility for the space agency, Columbia disintegrated on its way back to Earth from a 16-day science mission. The loss of seven astronauts and the $2 billion spaceship prompted intense scrutiny and investigators ultimately placed part of the blame on pressure from top managers to finish the station on time and under budget.

O'Keefe responded to the harsh findings of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board by saying, "We get it," and vowing to fully implement every one of its recommendations.

Two years later, shuttle managers and engineers still are struggling to fulfill that promise. The first post-Columbia mission is tentatively planned for May or June.

It now appears that return to flight will happen under a new administrator's watch.

Among the other candidates, Sega is perhaps next closest to the White House staffers advising the president. The former shuttle astronaut is serving as a director of research and engineering for Pentagon and was involved in drafting Bush's moon-Mars policy.

Crippen, retired and living in Florida, piloted Columbia on the first shuttle mission in 1981 and once was director of the Kennedy Space Center.

Bolden also recently served on a National Academy of Sciences panel that recommended reversing O'Keefe's January decision to cancel a shuttle repair mission to the Hubble Space Telescope. Without O'Keefe's opposition, the shuttle mission to Hubble would be easier to reinstate.

Walker retired in 1997 after two decades in the House of Representatives, where he had become one of Congress' leading experts on aerospace and space exploration.

Published under license from FLORIDA TODAY. Copyright ? 2004 FLORIDA TODAY. No portion of this material may be reproduced in any way without the written consent of FLORIDA TODAY.

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John Kelly

John Kelly is the director of data journalism for ABC-owned TV stations at Walt Disney Television. An investigative reporter and data journalist, John covered space exploration, NASA and aerospace as a reporter for Florida Today for 11 years, four of those on the Space Reporter beat. John earned a journalism degree from the University of Kentucky and wrote for the Shelbyville News and Associated Press before joining Florida Today's space team. In 2013, John joined the data investigation team at USA Today and became director of data journalism there in 2018 before joining Disney in 2019. John is a two-time winner of the Edward R. Murrow award in 2020 and 2021, won a Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting in 2020 and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Investigative Reporting in 2017. You can follow John on Twitter.