When Sean O'Keefe was sworn in as NASA administrator Dec. 21, 2001, at the top of his agenda was to bring fiscal discipline to a space agency that had recently allowed a $5 billion surprise to swamp its key program, an international space station already more than a decade behind schedule.
Four months before, the 45-year-old public administration professional, who had just returned to Washington after an 8-year absence to serve as deputy director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, had delivered a blunt message to NASA. Dropping by the agency's headquarters on a day when a blue-ribbon panel of business executives, military brass and Nobel Prize-winning scientists were meeting to decide what to do about the station's chronic budget problems, O'Keefe made it clear the Bush Administration would not be bailing out the space station.
"Know that there is nothing out there to go pay for these costs," O'Keefe informed the panel.
By the time they delivered their report recommending that the White House limit NASA to completing a scaled back three-person space station until the agency could re-establish its cost management credibility, O'Keefe was about to be tapped to succeed Dan Goldin as administrator to see that the chore got done.
Just one year into the job, the space station program appeared to be on the right track. New managers had been brought in, and the recommended reforms had been implemented. The White House was ready to let NASA start thinking again about building the station out beyond a three-person capacity.
But on Feb. 1, 2003, all that changed. The loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia and the death of seven astronauts became the defining moment of O'Keefe's tenure as NASA administrator. Nearly everything O'Keefe will leave as his legacy as NASA's tenth administrator, from a presidential space exploration vision to the debate over the future of the Hubble Space Telescope, was set in motion by the accident.
"Sean O'Keefe has been in charge as NASA has passed through some very tumultuous waters," said John Logsdon, the director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University here. "The financial and budget problems with [the space station] that brought him to NASA in the first place, then the tragedy of the Columbia accident, the resultant criticism of NASA as an organization and then the setting of new bold exploratory goals - that's a lot do deal with in three years."
O'Keefe submitted a hand-written letter of resignation to the president Dec. 13 citing the need to earn more money to put his three children through college. Three days later, he accepted the job of chancellor of Louisiana State University. The new job is expected to pay $500,000 a year and include use of a residence. At NASA, he earned $158,000 a year.
O'Keefe told Bush in his letter, and reiterated in a Dec. 17 press conference, that he would stay on until his successor is named and confirmed by the Senate with the hope that the process can be wrapped up by February.
There has been no official word on possible successors. Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) Dec. 16 issued a press release endorsing his former legislative fellow, retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Simon "Pete" Worden, for the job. Other names in circulation include: former Republican Pennsylvania congressman Robert Walker; former astronauts Charles Bolden, Ron Sega and Robert Crippen; and Craig Steidle, the chief of NASA's Exploration Systems Mission Directorate.
Whoever Bush picks for the job inherits a challenging agenda that includes returning the space shuttle to flight, sustaining support for the vision, dealing with Hubble and continuing the financial reforms O'Keefe initiated.
"He leaves a lot of loose ends for his successor, but overall I think he has pointed NASA in a positive direction for the future," Logsdon said.
While some might argue that O'Keefe has picked an awkward time to leave a space agency still in need of his deft political touch, others say now is a good time for him to move on.
"Sean O'Keefe was brought in to do a particular job and that was to right the ship of NASA, which was dead in the water vis-?-vis bureaucratic inertia," said Rick Tumlinson, founder of the Space Frontier Foundation, an activist organization frequently critical of NASA. "He was there to bail out that inertia, hoist the sail and get them going again. He has done a fairly good job at that. He is not the right captain for the voyage."
O'Keefe made it clear that guiding NASA through the next phase of that voyage is the primary duty of his successor, telling reporters that "the fundamental characteristic [of the next NASA administrator] ought to be someone who can support and implement the president's vision for space exploration."
O'Keefe's resignation follows less than a week after the release of a National Academy of Sciences report that said, in essence, he was completely wrong about Hubble. Two days after the president delivered his vision speech at NASA headquarters Jan. 14, the space agency announced that O'Keefe had canceled a space shuttle mission to service the aging telescope, citing concerns about astronaut safety.
The public and political backlash was swift and severe. Within days O'Keefe was pressured by Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations panel that oversees NASA's budget, to get a second opinion on his decision and called in retired Navy Admiral Harold Gehman, the no-nonsense chairman of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board for that task. NASA spent the rest of the winter on the defensive, and when Gehman finally reported back, the news didn't get any better: there was nothing in the CAIB report that precluded NASA from sending a shuttle to fix Hubble. O'Keefe bought additional time when he agreed to let the National Academy evaluate a range of options for Hubble that include robotic- and shuttle-servicing options.
"Hubble was a disaster," said one senior aerospace executive. "That's a good reason why he didn't get picked up for a cabinet position. He didn't coordinate his decision with other stakeholders."
Alan Ladwig, a policy advisor to Goldin during the 1990s, said O'Keefe's Hubble decision went over so poorly partly because the popularity of the space telescope and partly because the decision was inconsistent with Bush's call for exploring space in spite of the dangers. "On the one hand, we are talking about exploring the Moon and Mars, which is a risky endeavor that will put lives on the line, but yet we're not going to send astronauts into Earth orbit to service a satellite when that mission has already been done before?"
O'Keefe will almost certainly leave NASA before having either to reverse himself or buck the advice of the National Academy. A critical design review for the robotic mission that the academy panel judged as too risky given the time available isn't scheduled to occur until August. And planning for a shuttle mission need not get under way before return to flight.
O'Keefe said Dec. 16 that he had no regrets about either the decision or its timing, telling reporters that if anything he was glad he sparked such a vigorous debate while NASA and the nation still has the time to consider its options. "Better to have that now than when it is too late," he said.
RETURN TO FLIGHT
O'Keefe was widely praised for his stability and compassion in the days and months immediately following the Columbia accident. NASA's openness after Columbia stands in stark contrast to the bunker mentality that pervaded the agency after the 1986 Challenger disaster, and some feel that will be one of O'Keefe's enduring legacies. O'Keefe also won high marks for embracing the findings and recommendations of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, which went far beyond the technical root cause of the accident and delivered a scathing indictment of the NASA culture. O'Keefe set many of the called-for changes in motion. To the consternation of lawmakers and editorial boards, O'Keefe refused to make public examples of space shuttle officials tarnished by their conduct during Columbia's final mission. Some officials were removed only after the spotlight had faded. Others remain in place even today.
Anyone taking the job will have to be prepared to lead the agency through return to flight, currently targeted for the summer. O'Keefe admitted no misgivings to leaving before return to flight, saying it will make a better starting point for his successor "rather than being the closing chapter of my tenure."
"This is an opportunity for the next administrator to take this team to that first major accomplishment, that first major step on the path to achieving the vision for space exploration," O'Keefe said.
Without the Columbia accident, arguably the only vision O'Keefe would be leaving behind for his successor would be the one he articulated in a highly touted but easily forgotten speech just four months into his term as NASA administrator. Speaking at New York's Syracuse University April 12, 2002, the vision O'Keefe laid out presented no grand challenge to return to the Moon or venture on to Mars, but talked instead about returning the space agency to its R&D roots. He also said that solid science, not the quest to plant "flags and footprints" would drive NASA's exploration of the universe, saying "NASA will go where the science dictates that we go, not because it's close or popular."
O'Keefe continued to push his vision for NASA even until a more ambitious vision began to come together inside the White House in the aftermath of the Columbia accident.
Louis Friedman, executive director of the Pasadena, Calif.-based Planetary Society, is among those who do not think that O'Keefe should be remembered as the architect of record of the vision for space exploration. "To be honest about it, he wasn't the leader of it," Friedman said. "He was dragged into it to some extent, but once it became the administration's policy, he enthusiastically supported it and did all the right things to implement it."
Not everyone agreed. Ladwig, Tumlinson and others said O'Keefe could have done more to reach out to the commercial space sector as recommended by the President's Commission on Implementation of U.S. Space Exploration Policy, led by Edward "Pete" Aldridge, former Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisitions. The Aldridge Commission also called for NASA to take aggressive measures to break out of its Apollo-era mold, such as spinning off some of its 10 field centers to universities or other organizations.
O'Keefe made clear that he wasn't wild about that idea, but he did adopt some of the commission's less politically difficult recommendations, including reorganizing the space agency into fewer divisions.
"In response to the Aldridge Commission and the CAIB, NASA reorganized the science codes and skimmed off some money," said one former NASA official. "The science codes are easy to reorganize. It's like the neighborhood bully beating up on little kids. They haven't done a thing to fix the manned space flight community."
Another former NASA official agreed that the agency is still built to fly the shuttle and build the space station and changing that won't be easy.
"NASA is still an agency in need of institutional changes to transition from shuttle to human exploration," the former official said. "They still have an institutional size built for Apollo."
The next NASA administrator could inherit a budget situation worse than O'Keefe leaves behind. Few would have guessed mid-summer, when House appropriators slashed $1.1 billion from NASA's $16.2 billion budget request, that the space agency would end up getting nearly every dollar the president asked for by the time the Congress adjourned in December.
Courtney Stadd, Bush White House liaison to NASA and O'Keefe's first chief of staff who left the agency in July 2003 to return to a private consulting practice, said O'Keefe's political skills and knowledge of the appropriations process were instrumental in NASA winning full funding for this year's budget request. O'Keefe also helped win for his successor unprecedented latitude to move money between accounts to deal with budget challenges that include a $760 million shortfall for the space shuttle program and a congressional mandate to put $290 million towards a Hubble repair mission. Stadd said O'Keefe's hard-fought budget victory this year is no guarantee that NASA will continue to win the battles to come.
"We have to remind ourselves that NASA is a highly discretionary part of the budget that is under severe pressure and will only be more so in the year ahead," Stadd said.
Stadd said one of O'Keefe's other major contributions to NASA was highlighting the need for aggressive reform of the agency's troubled financial management system.
"The fact is that on O'Keefe's watch he has ensured that the budget and financial issues are on the radar screen of the political system. There is no shortage of scrutiny from different investigative bodies and that is a good thing from the standpoint of good stewardship of taxpayers' money," Stadd said. "But is also an area that cannot be fixed in several years. It's going to take several years more of hard, aggressive pushing to fix the problems that keep the agency from getting a clean audit."
O'Keefe said the problems he was brought in to solve with the space station were merely symptomatic of systemic problems with NASA's broader financial management system. He said he feels he set NASA's ailing financial management system "on the road to recovery." While finishing the job will fall to his successor, O'Keefe said "the hard work has largely been confronted and now under way."
Allen Li, the U.S. Government Accountability Office official in charge of NASA audits, said his advice to the space agency's next administrator would be to not let up on the financial reforms O'Keefe set in motion.
"Improved financial management is an integral to NASA's success with the vision," Li said. "Without it, NASA's cost estimates will not be that trustworthy."
Li said that while the space station program's cost management problems were looking better before the Columbia accident, the real test will come when assembly resumes. "The fact that the difficulties weren't the same as before has to be attenuated by the fact that they haven't done any construction in two years."
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Brian Berger is the Editor-in-Chief of SpaceNews, a bi-weekly space industry news magazine, and SpaceNews.com. He joined SpaceNews covering NASA in 1998 and was named Senior Staff Writer in 2004 before becoming Deputy Editor in 2008. Brian's reporting on NASA's 2003 Columbia space shuttle accident and received the Communications Award from the National Space Club Huntsville Chapter in 2019. Brian received a bachelor's degree in magazine production and editing from Ohio University's E.W. Scripps School of Journalism.