O'Keefe Does Lunch With The Press

NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe had lunch with a group of reporters on Thursday at NASA Headquarters. This is the second time O'Keefe has done this - and he has promised to do it again in the future. His first face to face with the press was in January 2002.

The hour and a half of discussions covered a variety of topics ranging from space tourism and education, Space Shuttle privatization to allocating space station crew time to science and searching for life in the universe.

Tourists, teachers, and journalists in space.

I asked O'Keefe whether he preferred that the Russians did not fly non-professional astronauts to the ISS. O'Keefe replied that there is an agreement in place between all of the international partners that comprise the ISS program which specifies the proficiency requirements for anyone visiting the ISS - and that this was the result of coordination between all parties involved. While he declined to address the specific issue of space tourists flying under sponsorship from other countries aboard Soyuz spacecraft, he was rather specific about who would fly aboard the Space Shuttle.

O'Keefe announced last week that he was reinstituting the old NASA Teacher in Space program - albeit as the "Educator Mission Specialist" program. Barbara Morgan, selected as an astronaut in the class of 1998, would be the first individual to fly on a mission under this program. Morgan was originally selected as Christa McAuliffe's back-up in the 1980s. Additional participants would be solicited over the coming years. O'Keefe was very precise in stating that all selectees would undergo the exact same training regime that other astronauts undergo and that they will be "full fledged astronauts." Noting that Morgan has served as Capcom on a recent mission he said "there is not a beat of difference between what she does and any other astronaut would do it."

O'Keefe would repeatedly return to the training issue as additional questions arose about who might be flying on Space Shuttles in the years ahead. O'Keefe feels that having non-professionals may reduce the opportunities that might be available for science and that they might also serve as a distraction to the maintenance and science activities being performed on the ISS.

As for what these educators in space would do, it is clear from O'Keefe that they'd have the same responsibilities as crew members. However, by virtue of their selection they'd be called upon to "use the unique prism of an educator" to bring their experiences into a form that would be useful to and accessible by students. An educator himself, O'Keefe defined the challenge for these educator-astronauts as follows: "how do you develop the pedagogy to translate this [experience] to people?"

O'Keefe was asked if the old NASA Journalist in Space program would be revived. While he did not say 'no' he did say "if people want to invest the time it takes [for training to be an astronaut] to go ..." He then repeated that he only foresees individuals with full astronaut proficiency as being eligible to fly on the Shuttle.

O'Keefe did not specifically say that he was dead set against the flying of paying tourists on the Space Shuttle. Instead, he said that only fully-trained astronauts would fly. Since the only way to get this training is to be trained by NASA, this pretty much closes the door on space tourists on the Space Shuttle- at least while O'Keefe is NASA Administrator.

There are, of course, other ways to get a ride to the ISS.

Adding extra shuttle flights - and charging commercial customers

One of the key recommendations of the Young Team last Fall as it assessed the ISS program was to place a limit on the number of Space Shuttle flights. The intent was to generate some cost savings while setting the flight rate to be commensurate with the number of flights needed to build and support the ISS. Additional flights were not ruled out - but they had to be added based on a specific demand - one driven by research requirements. This issue has come under fire in various quarters. Some say that this rate is too low to retain proficiency of the people who prepare the Shuttle. Others add that this could undermine the program's safety record.

O'Keefe has said repeatedly that he will not rule out additional missions. If one of NASA's science programs has a need for a mission, according to O'Keefe, then that program would have to come up with the funds to pay for that mission. When asked what these additional costs would be i.e., a fraction of the overall Shuttle budget ($300 - 500 million per mission) or the non-recurring costs needed to add a mission (around $80 million), O'Keefe said that it would likely be the smaller (non-recurring) number. O'Keefe took this opportunity to not that NASA was moving to full cost accounting and that he wanted these costs to be "real".

Last year NASA released a number of documents relating to space commercialization. Additional materials have been posted on NASA websites. Among the webpages is a price list for various services(crew time, power, data, transport etc.) aboard the Space Shuttle and ISS.

I asked O'Keefe if the pricing schedules set for internal and external customers would be the same - or if a different (higher) rate structure would be used for commercial customers. Specifically, O'Keefe was asked if NASA would try and "turn a profit" for itself on the space commercialization activities it allowed. O'Keefe replied that the agency was not going to try and make a profit and that it was his "intention" to make all cost structures internally and externally consistent and that NASA was not out to "market" anything. He said "we need to be straight with ourselves and the American public" on this issue. O'Keefe reiterated his intent that NASA move towards full cost accounting such that these costs would be an unambiguous as possible.

NASA's former commercialization guru Dan Tam was fond of asking "what's in it for NASA?" as he negotiated commercialization deals with prospective customers. Tam was able to do this by virtue of legislative language "Space Station Commercial Development Demonstration Program" (still active until the end of FY 2004) which was crammed into the FY 2000 VA/HUD Conference report at the very last minute. Congress was not too thrilled by this at the time.

The legislation states:

"Any receipts in excess of these costs identified in paragraph (1) above may be retained by the Administrator for use in promoting increased United States economic development of Earth orbital space utilizing the International Space Station. Amounts collected shall be available to the Administrator for expenditure without further appropriation and may be distributed and used as provided in this subsection without fiscal year limitation."

This use of "excess" or "non-appropriated" funds is also mentioned in the draft commercialization policy prepared by a team led by NASA Chief of Staff (and White House liaison) Courtney Stadd last year which states that NASA will seek to:

"Reinvest gains achieved through commercial partnerships back into the ISS program, as allowed by statute, and encourage evolutionary growth of the ISS through non-appropriated investment."

This new direction, as voiced by O'Keefe, whereby NASA would not seek to make a profit or accumulate excess non-appropriated funds, is a marked departure from the commercialization policies (albeit somewhat ad hoc) that NASA had been pursuing prior to O'Keefe's appointment.

How many Astronauts does it take ....

One of O'Keefe's constant companions these days is the discussion of how many crew members he foresees aboard the ISS as its research priorities and budgetary plans are revisited. Despite attempts by reporters, members of Congress and others, he has steadfastly stuck to the position that he is aiming the program towards U.S. Core Complete with its 3-person capability. Only if he is presented with a credible budget plan will he consider "excursions" beyond that number i.e. expanding the capability of the ISS beyond U.S. Core Complete.

The original baseline crew for the ISS was 6 - then it was increased to 7. The reason for the increase to 7, given by former OSF AA Joe Rothenberg at the time, is that this would enhance the scientific potential of the ISS by adding an additional person to do science.

O'Keefe refuses to be pinned down when it comes to what a possible number beyond 3 is suggested saying "I don't know what the right number is". A lot of this centers around a specific number O'Keefe claims he has yet to trace back to its original source i.e. that it takes "2.5 people to run the ISS" thus leaving (through simple math) 0.5 people to do other things such as science. So the story goes, as the ISS increases in size (hence the need for maintainability) that number might drop of further. This has been the core complaint by those who feel that the scientific capability of the ISS is being undermined.

According to O'Keefe, his best understanding of where this number came from was based on the assumption of a 40 hour work week for ISS crews. "No one knows where than number came from" he said. If you assume that it takes 100 hours per week to run the ISS that would leave 20 or so hours (one half a standard work week) for other things. O'Keefe took serious issue with this assessment. He noted that the crews on the ISS were willing and able to work much more than this in order to get things done. As such, he suggested that NASA needs to re-look at this assumption to see if there is more time available for science than urban legend might otherwise suggest. He added that NASA needs to revaluate tasks such that human intervention and hands-on time was "minimized".

Tom DeLay

At Wednesday's hearings on NASA's FY 2003 budget, House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-TX) took serious issue with O'Keefe's management of NASA. At one point, DeLay told Sean O'Keefe "you have a timid and anemic plan for human spaceflight." O'Keefe's response was, on the contrary, confident and measured. In addition to telling DeLay "it was nice to see you too" (a nice way, from this reporter's eyewitness observation, to tell Delay to 'stuff it') O'Keefe threw DeLay's words back at him several times saying that what he was doing was "hardly a timid and anemic plan."

I recounted this event to O'Keefe noting that he had said this to one of the most important people in Congress. O'Keefe did not openly agree with my characterization of the event. Instead, he referred to DeLay as "a patriot." He said that he looks forward to working with DeLay whom he also called "a great guy". He added that he can work with people - including critics - who will be "straight and open" about things and not "dance around" in discussing the issues. "So long as there is no ambiguity we can deal with the issues honestly" he said. With regard to DeLay, O'Keefe admitted that he needed to "redouble his efforts so that communication flows to friends and critics alike."

Merging Crew Transport and Return Requirements

One of Rep. DeLay's loudest complaints was that O'Keefe has taken $40 million that the House Appropriations Committee had added to NASA's FY 2002 budget to support CRV/X-38 work and used it instead to shut down the X-38 program and transfer its technology and knowledge to other crew transport programs at NASA.

In the hearings on Wednesday - and again at this luncheon - O'Keefe said that NASA was looking at accomplishing multiple requirements instead of having one vehicle (X-38) limited to one (return) function. O'Keefe was asked to speculate on what such a capability might involve. He said that there was a study underway to look at how to enhance the "safe haven" capability of the ISS. He noted that the astronaut office had told him that abandoning the ISS was at the end of along list of alternatives.

A number of scenarios were put to O'Keefe - possible purchase of additional Soyuz vehicles, use of Extended Duration Orbiters, and a crew taxi/cargo carrier architecture. O'Keefe wouldn't say 'yes' to any of them but did say that all of these things were being considered. Without being specific he added that a new vehicle "not exclusive to NASA" (USAF?) might also be in the mix of options to be considered.

How Deep Will REMAP Go?

The REMAP (Research Maximization and Prioritization) Task Force has been tasked by O'Keefe at looking at the science requirements of the ISS. O'Keefe has directed the team not to be constrained by power, crew time, cost etc. but rather on the scientific endeavors that will lead to the greatest chance of meaningful search - especially those efforts with a high 'break trough" potential. Once their recommendations are received NASA wil look at what it will take to adapt the ISS to meet these requirements.

Much of what is planned for the ISS revolves around facility-class payloads i.e. suites of hardware that comprise one or more rack locations. These facilities are expensive to build and have been in the planning pipeline for along time - some for well over a decade. So much of what NASA does takes an immense amount of time to get into space. As such there is often a technological time lag which manifests itself in slightly old or stale technology (which still does exactly what it was intended to do) flying when newer, more efficient and compact hardware might suffice.

I asked O'Keefe if REMAP would be able to delve into not just the "what" but also the "how" of the research to be done on ISS. O'Keefe admitted that this was a valid issue but said that he thought it unlikely that REMAP could get into this much detail and still be able to issue its report on time in June.

Privatization and Competitive Outsourcing

NASA is involved in a variety of exercise looking at changes in the way it operates its Space Shuttle fleet. A RAND Corp. team is currently working to develop a business plan which will then be used to evaluate potential options for future space shuttle operations. One of the obvious approaches to be considered is competitive outsourcing - a key component of the President's management plan.

When asked about the current contract with USA, O'Keefe noted that the current contact expires this year. The challenge, as O'Keefe sees it, is if new arrangements (or modifications of current ones) can achieve a higher level of safety and reliability at a lower cost. "That is an ambitious target" he said.

When asked to express concerns or thoughts about the current contract with USA, O'Keefe declined to say anything negative and said instead "I don't hear a lot of pinning for the good old days [before the USA contract]".

The "L" word

Last Week O'Keefe revealed his vision for the agency's future:

The NASA Vision
To improve life here,
To extend life to there,
To find life beyond.

The NASA Mission
To understand and protect our home planet
To explore the universe and search for life
To inspire the next generation of explorers
...as only NASA can.

The word "life" appears four times in these six lines. At the recent Astrobiology Science Conference at NASA ARC I was asked by a number of people what I thought this meant in the context of biology at NASA. I put this question to O'Keefe.

He said "To understand and protect our home planet" and "to improve life here" clearly reflect issues affecting us here on Earth. "To extend life to there," refers to the human exploration of space (HEDS). "To find life beyond." and "To explore the universe and search for life" refers to NASA's Origins and Astrobiology programs.

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