O'Keefe's First Law: It's Not Where You Go - But How You Get There

Sean O'Keefe doesn't buy into NASA's habitual way of positioning itself on the road ahead. At a breakfast hosted at the Capitol Hill Club in Washington by Women in Aerospace, O'Keefe sought to flesh out his vision for the agency in somewhat greater detail than he has yet to do during his short tenure on the job.

According to O'Keefe, at NASA "we are always in a position of rethinking the last great victory we just had." He continues "while it is a laudable objective to go to a place we have never been before, this is a 'reach back' to what the agency has done before."

O'Keefe was referring to the halcyon days wherein America did the impossible and sent humans to the moon. "We did something we thought was unobtainable." Noting that the motivations were wholly political he said "we did so such that we would not be intimidated." The source of the intimidation: the rivalries that fueled the Cold War.

"Today's legacy is now 180 degrees away from that motivational environment. Instead, we now see three people in space aboard the space station 24-7. Two Americans commanded by a Russian. That is amazing. We have reversed the situation. Now we join forces with the very same folks - the same culture - that so threatened us - and we do so in an operational environment."

Returning to his original point, O'Keefe said "people still want to reach back and conger up a destination." By this O'Keefe was referring to the desire by many to set the agency on a path to Mars or some other specific location. During the Apollo days, O'Keefe says "the destination wasn't as important as doing the impossible. Previous NASA tasks were to be part of a conquest of a frontier - and it all manifested itself in a destination."

Looking to his own idea of where NASA should be going now, O'Keefe said "we should look at the basics and fundamentals of how we manage what it is we do." We need to think about the obstacles - the limitations - that prevent us from achieving our aspirations - and to get where we want to go." Later he augmented this by saying that his interactions with the people of NASA showed him that they are "not inspired by whimsical fantasy - but rather by a series of objectives that will benefit humanity."

"Pick a destination - any destination - for whatever reason. There are two fundamental things that limit us right now. There is not a way to get there in any period of time that would allow contemporary use of the information that would be obtained." Although not specifically mentioned at this point, O'Keefe was referring to the Pluto-Kuiper mission which the Bush Administration seeks to cancel in favor of new exploration programs - and a new nuclear propulsion program that would get probes to the planet faster and allow them to loiter - perhaps orbit - once they arrived.

The limitations that are inherent in transit times to destinations in the solar system are the result of the limitations of current propulsion technology. "We are the edge of what chemical propulsion can provide. We are buffing the last 5% of what chemical technology can provide us. We need to overcome these technical limitations."

The analogy O'Keefe has been using of late was voice earlier this year by Associate Administrator for Space Science Ed Weiler. "Once you are in Earth orbit - after the first 10 minutes - you are in cruise control. There is no serious way to get across the solar system. Referring to Pluto again O'Keefe said "if we began in 2006 - and met all of the right gates - we might get to Pluto - and the Kuiper Belt in 2014-2016 - if we are lucky. This is as fast as we can get there using current technology. This is about the time (2014-2016) that we'd start to get images that wold be of greater quality than we get now - and we'd get them for 4 to 6 weeks."

O'Keefe then switched to Mars "many people's favorite destination." He called this a tremendous opportunity. Citing the multiple discoveries showing Mars to have greater amounts of water than previously thought - O'Keefe noted that this had obvious implications for the potential of life on Mars.

But O'Keefe is not ready to send humans there any time soon. "There are limitations" he said. Noting recent radiation results from the MARIE instrument on Mars Odyssey he said " the radiation is three times greater than we thought. We don't know how to conquer that." Radiation isn't the only limiting factor. "If you want to send humans in a time that is reasonable you need to conquer propulsion issues as well."

All of the challenges facing NASA aren't technical. There are management issues as well. Referring to the human factors issues facing crews to Mars O'Keefe noted the recent appointment of Mary Kicza as Associate Administrator for the Office of Biological and Physical Research (OBPR) at NASA headquarters. "These issues are laid at Mary's doorstep. She is not a biologist - not a chemist - not a physicist. Rather, she is someone who manages people who excel in those disciplines." Assisting Kicza will be Astronaut and Mir veteran Shannon Lucid whose experience O'Keefe feels will be of great utility.

There are two ways to view enabling technology and destinations. O'Keefe's view is that NASA needs to focus on the twin technological roadblocks of reducing transit time and ironing out the human factors issues before a specific destination (such as Mars) can be chosen - and the agency's resources focused upon that destination.

When I asked him if the opposite might also work - i.e. that the setting of a goal, one which by its very nature calls for technological advances - all keyed to a common timeline - could be set. In so doing, the pursuance of the goal would pull the technology along. Apollo was a splendid example - even if the goal was set for political reasons.

NASA is not the only high tech entity that has done impossible things. A decade or so ago, the people proposing that we sequence the human genome were often met with laughter - and then suggestions that we wait a decade or so until the technology to do such a Herculean task was available. The logic being that 'if we wait until we are smarter we can do the work in less time'. Instead, the project moved ahead - at first by brute force, later, spurred on by commercial innovations themselves spawned by early the frustration from early phases of the program. The goal itself caused a constant rethinking and refining of the technology.

The net result was that the human genome (and a number of other organisms too) was sequenced years earlier than had been thought possible - and at a level of certainty that would not have been foreseen even by the most optimistic of the project's proponents. Moreover, when the White House held a ceremony to "declare victory", the head of the government's genome program - and the head of the lead commercial consortium that had more or less beat the government to the finish line, stood side by side, smiling. This was probably the most unforeseen event of all.

I asked O'Keefe whether a variation upon John Kennedy's challenge to the nation might be possible. Instead of challenging America to send humans to Mars and "return them safely be the end of (a TBD) decade" I asked why you couldn't encompass his interest in tackling and enhancing the enabling technologies at the same time by saying that the challenge was to send humans to Mars and back in 6 months (transit time). I suggested that setting a destination helps you to calibrate your work and provides a common target point.

O'Keefe did not say 'yes' but rather suggested that the ideas posed in the question were "another way to look at this". However, when I suggested that he is "interested in many destinations but you just don't want to pick one right now" he smiled and joked that he had liked my questions up to that point.

Other topics

One participant asked O'Keefe about the "other 'A' in NASA' (aeronautics). O'Keefe replied that he saw a close synergy between aeronautics and space". He went on to list a number of areas where he saw potential collaborations including work with the FAA and enhancements that are needed for America's air traffic control system and working on "diagnostics and forensics" with the NTSB.

The next topic was commercialization. O'Keefe smiled and said that this topic was "a sticky wicket". Noting that "a lot happened before I got here" he said that there are "tremendous implications" ahead. He hopes to see NASA concentrate its efforts on risks that the private sector either can't or won't take up - but none the less still need to be done. On the other hand "if there is duplication with the private sector" he'll be wondering "why we are doing that."

A subsequent question on the topic referred to a draft NASA commercialization plan that found its way online in late 2001. O'Keefe was asked when a second (revised) version might be forthcoming. O'Keefe replied that he had found this draft document "difficult to sort through". He said that he hoped that NASA could "express that in a more concise way" and that he is "hopeful that a second draft will be thinner and more concise." "That is an aspiration - not a promise" he added.

The next topic was education. Note to O'Keefe' watchers: his eyes light up when this topic is brought up. " This is "an absolute favorite of mine" he said. Unlike other topics where he tries to stick to a standard pitch, he speaks from the cuff on this one. It should also be noted that O'Keefe has brought Paul Pastorek, a long time friend and former head of the Louisiana state educational system to be NASA's General Counsel. While Pastorek's title says one thing, O'Keefe has identified Pastorek as having another role: the point man on NASA's new educational initiatives.

O'Keefe is quick to mention that he has three kid ages 15,12, and 11 and that they are a "ferocious board of directors". "It is like having a polling group in your home." He said. His kids apparently spend time visiting NASA websites and freely expressing their thought on form and content. Placing all that NASA does into a different context he said "if it excites kids - that is what Is going to get to the kids. That is one of our primary objectives." O'Keefe said.

O'Keefe mentioned that he had done a road trip to all of NASA 's 10 field centers. During the trip hew managed to see many interesting things. A 3D visualization of canyons on Mars really got this attention. He expressed a bit of a newcomer's frustration at the lack of exuberance NASA people have for this amazing stuff. "People at NASA get used to amazing things - or they think no one will be interested in them."

O'Keefe said that he wanted to see NASA "make this information more interesting - more accessible" and he thinks that it "will not take a lot of time to do this."

The next topic was the possibility that the People's Republic of China might find itself a partner on the ISS program. O'Keefe replied "it could be". He then went on to note that the cornerstone for the ISS program was one wherein all 16 partners came together to share experience and "join together to advance science." He said that he "is not aware that there are any requests [by China] to join the partnership." This is a topic that might come up at the heads of agencies meeting later this spring. O'Keefe mentioned that he had discussed this topic "with my friend [Deputy Secretary of State] Rich Armitage".

The last question had to do with the effect of 9/11 on NASA. O'Keefe touched on only one specific item - the use of airborne and satellite imagery. He then addressed the issue of civilian Vs military space applications. "I thought it was interesting to hear that some people felt that a bright line needed to exist between civilian and military technology." "Technology doesn't know those lines - hence the problem we have with export control of technology. The line is no longer as clear post-9/11. There is more enthusiasm in seeing how things [military and civilian technology] can be brought together. "We can bring a lot to this. That debate is now open."

Related Links

  • 5 February 2002: NASA's Budget: Back to the Future - and to Basics, SpaceRef
  • 15 January 2002: Sean O'Keefe Sworn in Amidst the Rockets, SpaceRef
  • 8 January 2002: Mr. O'Keefe Meets the Press, SpaceRef
  • 2 January 2002: Message from NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe
  • 1 January 2002: The Bean Counter and the Moon Walker: Pathways to Space Vision - Part 2: A Bean Counter's Tale, Spacelift Washingon, SpaceRef
  • 18 December 2001: The Bean Counter and the Moon Walker: Pathways to Space Vision - Part 1: Buzz Aldrin and the Quest for Reusable Space, Spacelift Washingon, SpaceRef
  • 16 December 2001: The O'Keefe Era is About to Begin at NASA, SpaceRef
  • 24 September 2001: NASA: Enhanced Strategy for the Development of Space Commerce (Draft) (Full Report Text) NASA HQ

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