The Bean Counter and the Moon Walker: Pathways to Space Vision - Part 2

Spacelift Washington
Spacelift Washington Archive

A Spacelift Washington Special Series
Part Two: A Bean Counter's Tale

WASHINGTON - They have names that are all part of the history of spaceflight: names like Webb, Paine, Dryden, Beggs, Truly - and Goldin. Now, Sean O'Keefe's name is about to be added to that list, as the latest administrator of the nation's civil space agency.

A cottage industry has sprung up of late for those who are either proposing advice to the new space chief, or pooh pooing the idea that O'Keefe will be able to make any substantive changes to NASA's prime programs or organizational structure. "He's not going to do anything to MY code" one hears from many a place at the agency's centers.

Wishful thinking?   Whistling past the graveyard on Halloween?   Or a simple political truth?

In his few public statements, O'Keefe has said his priorities at NASA will cluster around getting the agency back to its research-and-development roots. Renewed attention to the first "A" in NASA, aeronautics. His president so far has given (a little) budget attention to space launch technology, with increases to SLI (the Space Launch Initiative). That's about it thus far.

At the same time, though, Bush killed the two space launch projects farthest along at the time he took office, the X-33 and X-34 advanced technology demonstrators. It is not our purpose here to argue the merits of these projects, only to point out that the Bush Administration has set out markers for NASA programs that it considers in budgetary or programmatic trouble. Those markets set off a sort of outer boundary beyond which programs pass at their own peril.

Such, of course, is the situation today facing the International Space Station (ISS). Arguably NASA's most important program (certainly its largest), O'Keefe has spent most of his time during 2001 at OMB addressing its status. While there, President Bush deferred two large parts of the program, its habitation module and escape (return) vehicle, to help absorb some of its cost overruns. That these elements of ISS cannot go either unbuilt or unprovided for without drastically reducing the station's capability and rationale has not been lost on the space community - or the project's 16 international partners.

Nor has the importance of these two main deferrals been lost on O'Keefe himself. O'Keefe now faces the difficult task of bringing the recommendations of the recent Young Committee report on the ISS into actual implementation, keeping the space project's partners happy, and Capitol Hill from meddling in his management of NASA.

While O'Keefe moves through his early agenda on the agency's structure, the lessons from his predecessor might be worth remembering.

In an interview with this editor a year ago, Goldin spoke scathingly of Congress and its attempts to micromanage NASA.

"What did they call themselves? The Cardinals of Capitol Hill," he sneered. "Well, they didn't get to me - I didn't bow down to them like they thought I would." And in fact, Goldin didn't bow down to Congress, largely avoiding any direct criticisms with an in-your-face intimidation tactic repeatedly played out in hearing after hearing. He was strong, unyielding, unapologetic -and abrasive. It worked for Goldin for nearly a decade.

Will O'Keefe take the same approach? - times have changed.

Thus far, Sean O'Keefe has largely sidestepped the question-and-answer traps laid out for him by both Republican and Democratic Senators during his confirmation hearing. Unlike his predecessor, O'Keefe brings years of experience in dealing with politically-troubled government projects, and he has been known to be able to maneuver through Congress with stealth and skill. After all, he spent years in the Senate himself as a senior budget staffer dealing with defense issues during the appropriations process.

So, are there any lessons we can learn from the recent past that could serve as a guide to how Sean O'Keefe's administration of NASA will handle its space crises? What follows is, I hope, a useful parable on the exercise of political power through the prism of program management and Congressional oversight.

And although told as a parable, it is a true story.

A Bean Counter's Tale

A new administration tales the oath of office on a freezing January morning. The president of the United States, George Bush, enters office after eight years of a charismatic and expansive predecessor. It is a new time, a time for new players and priorities.

Bush turns to a trusted partner in his new White House, a man from Wyoming named Dick Cheney. Together they seek to address a wide host of issues facing them, unresolved from the previous administration.

One such issue is a major project; a major advance of its kind beyond anything attempted before. And its sponsoring agency has others; too, some of whom face budget troubles as the new team gets into place. To help get a handle on these matters, the man from Wyoming turns to a man from the Bayou country of Louisiana named Sean O'Keefe. Together, the new team wrestles with a host of programs facing budget problems.

Chief among these was a project whose main agency sponsor told Congress "is incredible; it amazes me every time I think about it." But it is a program in trouble.

How does this new team respond?

Cheney and O'Keefe et al go through an elaborate review; some would say later taking much too long to determine the project was in dire budget straights. At one point Cheney is told the program is a few hundred million over budget, then a billion. "Did you say a billion?", Cheney is quoted as saying at one point.

Rather than rush to cancel, it can be said that the Cheney-O'Keefe team proceeded slowly, analytically, before the rising tide of troubles could no longer be either deferred, or as some critics would say later, denied. In the middle of the program reviews, which were increasingly negative, the sponsoring agency would tell O'Keefe that the project "was under control", and was their "highest priority".

But it was not under control at all.

A critical report on the project was shelved when its agency supporters- and senior cabinet-level administrators - demanded it, afraid of the consequences if the report were widely distributed at that point in the project's history. O'Keefe elected to comply with their requests, a move he somewhat regretted later. "I'm still at peace with that decision, even though my place in the sordid history of this would have looked better if I'd served it up and let somebody else make the decision," he said later.

Cheney would agree to trim back the project at first, cutting its costs in an effort to absorb some of the overruns and schedule delays then mounting. But nothing stopped the hemorrhage of money, and the eventual schedule slippage itself reduced the validity of the entire effort.

Within two years of O'Keefe beginning his budget reviews, Cheney killed the program.


"Nobody could tell me how much the program was going to cost," Cheney said later, a fact that some disputed. Five billion had been spent, and bought nothing for the nation.

The president of the United States in this parable was George H.W. Bush; the time early 1989. Dick Cheney was, not vice-president of the United States, but rather, the Secretary of Defense. The project in trouble, as many alert readers would have likely known, was the U.S. Navy's A-12 stealth bomber, a program once called by the Navy Secretary "our top priority". O'Keefe eventually recommended that the program be terminated "based on continuing development problems and ... affordability".

The text for this comes, not from my research but from James P. Stevenson's The Five Billion Misunderstanding published by the Naval Institute Press. The author does not credit O'Keefe or Cheney as either rushing to judgment but instead strongly suggests that they engaged in prolonging the inevitable. "Virtually all of the problems associated with the A-12 could have been avoided if the senior DoD officials had provided proper oversight," Stevenson writes in the book's summation.

Stevenson's next book will be about how Congress fails to provide proper oversight over large government projects. Start saving your pennies now; it'll be worth every one of them.

The purpose of this review is not to either criticize the A-12 or discuss its merits, or whether or not Cheney or O'Keefe moved too slowly or too quickly in gathering the facts on its true condition. Rather, my intent was to show by example that Sean O'Keefe has not shown himself to be a slash-and-burn wielder of the budget knife. As a read of Stevenson's entire book will show, O'Keefe has demonstrated an ability to carefully play off the bureaucrats, the advocates, and the issues so as to arrive at a programmatic destination in tune with his superiors' wishes.

In other words, O'Keefe has avoided being co-oped by some of the largest bureaucracies in the world - the Department of Defense and the U.S. Navy. Understanding this part of O'Keefe's skill mix should be appreciated by O'Keefe watchers as he settles into the environs of NASA.

What did the Bush administration give O'Keefe after killing that troubled Navy project? They made him Secretary of the Navy, head of the very agency that had the program problems.

Sound familiar?

The blunt truth be told, it is in O'Keefe's career interests not only to fix what's needed in the ISS program, but across all of NASA as well. This is a man, at age 47, who could serve future Republican Presidents in higher, cabinet-level posts, possibly including a Bush II second term.

As such, it is in Sean O'Keefe's own best interest to rescue the space agency from any of the major problems that it now faces. He has a reputation as a person who fixes troubled government projects - one way or the other.

So, in a way, NASA supporters should not be unhappy at his coming to office there. O'Keefe has much in common, in background and orientation, with a predecessor, James Webb. Webb was not a scientist or an engineer but was former head of the Bureau of the Budget when John Kennedy, via Lyndon Johnson, tapped him to head NASA in 1961. He was, to use a popular but unnattractive term, a bean counter.

To be honest, Webb served as NASA chief in a very different era, and had a much larger wallet to tide him over cost overruns with the agency's main project of the time, Apollo.

O'Keefe does not have as much wiggle room; has no major global need such as fighting Communism to keep any of his stable of space projects going if they veer into trouble; and faces a shrinking - not expanding - budget. Less beans to count.

As Stevenson quotes one budget analyst during the A-12 crisis: "We need only to look at what drove the Egyptians to stop building pyramids. It was not a conscious decision based on analysis of need," Stevenson quotes an analyst. "It was because they ran out of money..."

As we watch Sean O'Keefe settle into his job as NASA Admintsrator, a caveat: heaven help any program manager who hears O'Keefe say "Reclama".

*Note: Spacelift Washington is a column. As such it contains a mix of fact, opinion, speculation, insight, and analysis. It is written to help stimulate a discussion of the major space issues of the day. In the spirit of full disclosure, the editor strongly supports human spaceflight in general and the International Space Station program in particular and has said so in public on several occasions.

Related Links

  • 16 December 2001: The Bean Counter and the Moon Walker: Pathways to Space Vision - Part 1, SpaceRef
  • 16 December 2001: The O'Keefe Era is About to Begin at NASA, SpaceRef
  • 27 November 2001: Spacelift Washington: Aldrin's vision of space may have at last found a home, SpaceRef
  • 30 October 2001: The Commission on the Future of the United States Aerospace Industry Begins its Task, SpaceRef
  • 8 July 2001: Spacelift Washington: Bush Delays Threaten Aerospace Commission, SpaceRef
  • 18 July 2001: Space Tourism Hearings on Capitol Hill, SpaceRef
  • 26 June 2001: Testimony by Dr. Buzz Aldrin on "Space Tourism" Before the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics, SpaceRef

    Articles in the Spacelift Washington "The Future of Space" series:

  • 13 February 2001: Part One: Air Force Space Leaders Prepare for Weapons in Space
  • 13 February 2001: Part Two: The Future of Space: President's Space Advisory Board to be staffed with outside experts
  • 13 February 2001: Part Three: Commercial Space cooling trend continues
  • 13 February 2001: Part Four: A Thriving Commercial Space Now Key to All Sectors

    The information contained herein are the authors own and are not affiliated with any other society, organization, or institution. Publication does not constitute endorsement of either editorial content or sponsoring web site. Have information about space transportation? Email the editor at

    Please follow SpaceRef on Twitter and Like us on Facebook.