Mr. O'Keefe Meets the Press

Barely on the job for 5 days Sean O'Keefe did something his predecessor would have avoided at all costs: he held the first of two morning breakfasts with 20 or so reporters. O'Keefe ran the session in a relaxed, cordial manner - one that bespeaks someone who is comfortable with himself - and with the job. O'Keefe really didn't make much of any news - much of what he said was recycled from his confirmation hearing. But that was not the point. Being accessible was.

All comments were on the record - indeed, O'Keefe's policy with regard to things he says and writes is that everything is always on the record. This way, he reasoned, "you never have to stop and wonder whether you actually said something." The logic being if you are always thinking that everything you say is going to be under scrutiny you tend to put more thought into what you say. O'Keefe also professed an interest in being "open and candid" with regard to "NASA's success and not-so success".

O'Keefe began the session by repeating something he has said in small and large groups - "NASA is an extraordinary place with a legendary history covering 40 years." O'Keefe described the success that the agency had experienced as being in the face of "a variety of challenges." O'Keefe readily admits that he does not have a strong background in aerospace, but that he does recognize, none the less, that NASA has a record of accomplishment.

O'Keefe sees his role as being to "instill an entrepreneurial spirit" in the agency - to move NASA towards being a preeminent R&D center. He also wants to move the agency towards determining what its core competencies and strategic capabilities are. In defining these things, O'Keefe is looking to equip the agency to pursue a wide range of capabilities instead of developing a "linear series of programs." He also wants to set strategic objectives for the agency. Admitting again that his background is not one "steeped" in NASA's accomplishments, he does want to look at the "the elements are that have made this organization so legendary."

Near term priorities focus on the FY 2003 budget which will be released in a month or so. O'Keefe declined to comment on the budget but did say that some of what will be in there will have some of his ideas embedded within. O'Keefe also wants to move swiftly to address the issue of core competencies.

Questions from the reporters tended to be focused on the International Space Station (ISS) and the issues arising out of the recommendations made by the Young Committee. The questions asked had to do with what the final crew complement would be, whether the U.S. is going to meet its obligations to the international partners, and whether funding issues with the ISS are going to affect other programs. Issues relating to planetary exploration, management, and overall tone of running the agency were asked. Nearly all of O'Keefe's comments were the same ones made during his confirmation hearing last year.

O'Keefe repeated his oft-voiced concern about the ISS and his view that the Young Committee has provided a good framework for addressing issues and getting the ISS back on track. While problems seem to beset the ISS at every turn, O'Keefe was quick to defend the ISS and noted that if it did not already exist we'd need to create something like it. When asked whether he thought the ISS was a 'flop' he said crisply "no".

When the issue of the international partners was raised, O'Keefe repeated what he had said in his confirmation hearings - that he had been in consultation with his "friends" Secretary of State Powell and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage. O'Keefe did not seem to think that any of the partners were about to 'jump ship' as one reporter put it and said that the U.S. would be meeting its international commitments. In meeting these commitments, O'Keefe tended towards legalese saying that there are a series of objectives that the U.S. is bound to meet between now and 2006 and that he expected to meet them. He did not get into any of the specific complaints raised by the international partners.

One of the core recommendations of the Young Committee is that the ISS be focused on achieving a credible series of scientific and technology goals. In 2000 NASA changed the name of its Office of Life and Microgravity Sciences and Applications (OLMSA) to the "Office of Biological and Physical Research" (OBPR). The core role of OBPR remained virtually unchanged from OLMSA's. Around the same time OLMSA's Associate Administrator left the position and Kathie Olsen, NASA's Chief Scientist, sat in as acting AA. Over the past several years, more than one job hunt has been conducted for a permanent AA for OBPR. Candidates either withdrew their names out of frustration when the selection process stalled - or NASA brought the process to a halt because they did not feel that they had the right candidates. Olsen is now moving to the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) at the White House thus leaving both the OBPR and Chief Scientist positions vacant.

When asked if this lack of science leadership at NASA would be fixed after the scientific criteria for ISS were developed - or if these positions were to be filled before such criteria were established- O'Keefe said simply that he had a lot of admiration for the job that Kathie Olsen had done while at NASA. He went on to laud Olsen for her ability to "take complex issues and describe them in simple terms". Olsen is still going to be at NASA for the next month or so - and O'Keefe said that he'd be taking full advantage of her presence at the agency. He joked that he'd "get her back if the White House didn't treat her well."

ISS Disconnect? Marburger's Gloomy Counterpoint to O'Keefe's Optimism

A few hours after O'Keefe met with reporters, Presidential Science Advisor John Marburger addressed attendees at the Annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society. A few minutes later he held a press conference for reporters. In marked contrast to NASA Administrator O'Keefe's cautious course regarding Space Station problems, Marburger presented a far more gloomy potential future for the ISS.

When asked to comment on the Bush administration's views on robotic Vs human exploration of space, Marburger said " we need to review what we get out of investment we get in space-based research. There is something to be gained from having people on the spot to do things. The Space Station is up and running and has people on it and represents a great investment by the American people. It would be a great scandal if it were not exploited."

When asked to comment on NASA plans for cutting costs in the ISS program and concerns that this may have on the program's international partners, Marburger replied "YES we are concerned. We are concerned about the project. It needs help - and management attention. No one has confidence that we know how much it will cost."

When asked if he felt that the U.S was risking violation of a treaty level commitment with regard to issues relating to the international partners, Marburger said "I don't think it will come to that. We value the partnership and the science. We are in a very tense situation trying to get control. The incoming management [at NASA] is competent and good. The Young report has a lot of good things in it."

He then said "there may be a greater chance of abandoning" the ISS. And then he quickly said that "this is not the place (in front of several dozen reporters) to say this. Don't quote me on that". Moments later Marburger said "if we cannot get our arms around the management problems" in the Space Station "much greater dangers could lie ahead."

Another Young Committee recommendation suggests that NASA can reduce human spaceflight costs by limiting the number of Space Shuttle flights to 4 per year and adjusting the ISS program accordingly. The current flight rate is around 6 flights per year. When asked if this number was the right mix O'Keefe shied away from endorsing any specific number. As he has done in recent weeks, he said that he "does not know what the right number is." He went on to say he intended to "use naivete as a virtue: I have no preset solution in mind." He repeated (again as he has done so in hearings) that this is one of the things NASA will be looking at. He did say that whatever number was developed, that it had to be driven by the scientific and technical requirements - as well as the operational requirements of the ISS program.

O'Keefe was then asked to comment on Dan Goldin's advice shortly before its departure that the Administration should either downsize the agency and its tasks to get it in synch with the financial resources at hand, or increase its budget if the tasks are to remain on its plate. O'Keefe said that Goldin had lead a detailed effort to look at options (the Strategic Resources Review - SRR). He did not address a question regarding center closures directly, but said instead said that he'd be looking at a wide range of infrastructural capabilities at NASA and "dive into the results of the SRR".

Some concern has been expressed that Sean O'Keefe is not the ideal choice for NASA Administrator by virtue of not having an overtly space-oriented background. When asked if he had a "burning passion" to be NASA Administrator, O'Keefe said that he had a passion that "whatever you do - you do it right." He went on to say that "there are few Americans who do not have an appreciation for the enormous capability that this organization has." "It is very easy to get excited about this." He was then asked if this was a "dream job for him. He shot back instantly "You bet. I am just astonished that the President had the confidence in me."

Questions have been raised as to whether space is a significant priority at the White House. When asked to address this, O'Keefe replied that he had "spoken with the President and the Vice President" and that they have "great expectations for this organization". O'Keefe saw his task as being to tell the White House what is "feasible" during this Administration.

Human spaceflight - both the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station - consume a substantial portion of NASA's budget. When they have budget problems, the entire agency feels it. O'Keefe was asked if changes were going to be made in the management of the ISS program. He replied that the ISS program "shouldn't be considered at the expense of everything else that is going on here." As for specifics, O'Keefe said (justifiably after only 5 days on the job) "I am working on it. There are lots of implementation details to be worked out. The Young Committee laid out a good blueprint."

O'Keefe's previous experience in government has lead a number of people to call him a "bean counter" or, in the case of one reporter's question a "heartless budget cutter." O'Keefe joked in reply that perhaps (PAO AA) Glenn Mahone "will be a better publicist than I have had before."

The issue of how missions get developed an sent into space then came up. O'Keefe's thrust (under repeated questioning for clarification) was that missions need to have a purpose - and "not be simply and end to a means." He said that going to a destination isn't enough since "you won't know what to do when you get there." Instead, he said that goals and objectives should be in place. Then, he said that the options for meeting those goals and objectives should be weighted. If going to one location or another arose as the best way to do this, then fine. Otherwise, he felt that going somewhere just to go there didn't fit into his plan.

Dan Goldin's personal desire to see humans on Mars was brought up. O'Keefe said he was not for or against the human exploration of Mars. When asked specifically about the prospect of sending humans to Mars, he repeated that the same criteria should be applied - i.e. is this the best way to meet certain goals and objectives? If so, (once again) fine.

Some confusion lingered in the room with regard to whether O'Keefe was questioning what NASA had in the planning stages. He said that multiple options are on the table but also agreed that upon examination, it is quite possible that he'd endorse plans and missions already in place.

Part of the guiding philosophy O'Keefe spoke of has to do with incremental advances Vs leaps in capability. He said that he does not "want to find ourselves perfecting what it is we already know how to do." NASA should be "looking at leaps ahead in technology."

NASA has been debating various aspects of Space Shuttle and ISS commercialization and privatization over they ears. Multiple plans have been developed and soon forgotten. Often, the terms "privatization" and "commercialization" are used interchangeably or in an overlapping fashion leaving a precise definition hard to find. O'Keefe agreed that there was some confusion in how these terms were used and that some clarification was called for.

As guidance in how he planned to proceed, O'Keefe referred to the second "Government-wide Initiative" contained in President Bush's "Management Agenda" (he made certain each reporter took a copy with them as they left the room) O'Keefe pursued this particular item with great enthusiasm across the government while at OMB. He said that this plan was something people should be familiar with since it is how the President wants the government to operate. In implementing competitive outsourcing at NASA - specifically on something such as the Space Shuttle, he said that he "cared less about who performs a task and more about how they are motivated to perform the task."

Many of the privatization and commercialization plans NASA has surfaced of late find themselves criticized for either 'picking winners' or working backwards from a preordained outcome. O'Keefe expressed dissatisfaction with starting a process when a specific end state was already decided upon. "If you set up an equation to pick a winner - you've made a mistake." Instead, he said that he preferred that a process be put in place, consistent with competitive procurement, that sets up a process whereby the process works "to pick a better way to do things."

As to what 'better 'means, O'Keefe repeated a pet peeve he mentioned at his confirmation hearing. "I have seen too many people who view success as an incremental increase in how much more you get than last year- usually measured in single digit changes. A few points up - is good. A few points down is bad. This does not tell you anything about performance." Indeed it may simply reflect that a program did not have enough resources the previous year.

One particular aspect of space commercialization was brought up: space tourism. O'Keefe said he'd have to think about this - but that he is "inclined to think that this is not part of the [agency's] charter."

Some non traditional approaches to mounting space research have emerged in recent years. Of all the plans and proposals NASA has developed over the years for involving the commercial sector in human spaceflight, only the proposal for a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) for ISS Utilization has passed external muster -- having gained endorsements and support from Congress and the National Research Council.

Other novel ways to leverage private and public resources have emerged. The Haughton Mars Project on Devon Island involves NASA, CSA, universities, organizations, and private companies. The Beagle 2 project in the UK aims to put a spacecraft on the surface of Mars after a piggyback ride on ESA's Mars Express was initiated with private funds and still maintains a substantial non-governmental component. Then there is the proposed Mars Oasis satellite by Paypal founder Elon Musk wherein a wholly private mission would land on the surface of Mars.

When asked if such out of the box, non-traditional approaches to the exploration of space - ones involving public/private partnerships, would be considered, O'Keefe was non committal to the specific projects mentioned, but replied that nothing is off the table at this point.

Next up was SLI - the Space Launch initiative. NASA's previous attempts at developing technology to replace the Space Shuttle with a RLV (Reusable Launch Vehicle) have met with little success.. The Bush Administration moved to cancel the X-33 and X-34 programs weeks after taking office. The nascent SLI was proposed, in some part, to try and accomplish in a more distributed fashion, the development of the technologies needed for next generation launch systems - instead of putting NASA's eggs in one basket as had been the case with X-33 and X-34 programs.

Since O'Keefe was nominated to be NASA Administrator, some suggestions have been circulating that O'Keefe and OMB staff were taking a second look at how SLI was being managed at NASA. When asked if it were possible that the Department of Defense might become involved in SLI - or even that they'd be eligible for SLI funding - O'Keefe did not dismiss the possibility. He noted that Under Secretary for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, Pete Aldridge, knows what NASA is capable of doing.

In bringing the DoD and NASA together, O'Keefe repeated a concern he voiced at his confirmation hearings. Back in the 80's NASA and the USAF pursued parallel launch capabilities. Some bad blood between them led to the development of spacecraft that were just slightly different enough such that they could not fly on the other agency's launch systems. O'Keefe said that he did not want to see this sort of "institutional bickering" happen again.

O'Keefe was asked if there was a NASA Administrator in particular he admired. Without hesitation he said "James Webb". The fact that he had been the head of the government's budget office to then become NASA Administrator had an "obvious" parallel with O'Keefe's career track.

O'Keefe was then asked if he was going to follow the path his predecessor took - one wherein a steady series of agency wide reviews (Red Teams, Blue Teams, ZBR, SRR, etc.) often left people in a constant state of chaos - or whether his focus would be getting a plan in place and then sticking with it such that real changes could take hold. O'Keefe replied with a quote from James Webb wherein Webb said that "chaos is to be expected - and welcome". However, O'Keefe agreed that having too much chaos is not a good thing and that some stability was a good idea as well - as long as the process kept people on their toes and open to new ideas.

In closing, O'Keefe thanked everyone for attending. Another session with another set of reporters is scheduled for Wednesday. O'Keefe also said that he'd be meeting with reporters again (presumably in a similar fashion) when the FY 2003 budget is released.

Throughout the morning's events, O'Keefe made frequent mention of the fact that he had only been on the job for 5 days and that he had a lot of home work to do before he could address all of the issues raised by reporters. As is the case with any new agency head, there is s certain honeymoon period where reporters and critics cut some slack as the new guy learns the ropes. O'Keefe has a road show of NASA field center visits to make, some numbers to crunch, a new budget to defend, and a long list of political battles to fight in the year ahead.

It is through these tests that his mettle will truly be tested, In this reporter's opinion, if today's comparatively mild gauntlet was a preview, it would seem that he relishes the opportunity.

Related Links

  • 16 December 2001: The O'Keefe Era is About to Begin at NASA, SpaceRef
  • 7 November 2001: Statement by Sean O'Keefe before the House Science Committee on the ISS Management and Cost Evaluation Task Force
  • 5 November 2001: Task Force Reports On The International Space Station, SpaceRef

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