In a revealing response, when asked by House Science Committee leaders about his vision for NASA, new Administrator Sean O'Keefe replied that he hoped the space agency would be viewed as "a leading agency in the federal government for implementing...the President's Management Agenda." He said he intended to oversee an agency that was run "as efficiently as I know how" and, he added, "that is driven by science." Having been on the job at NASA for just eight weeks at the time of the hearing, O'Keefe, a business and management expert, indicated he was pleasantly surprised at the "unbridled energy, enthusiasm, and creativity" he found among NASA employees.
While the purpose of the February 27 hearing was to receive O'Keefe's testimony on NASA's FY 2003 budget request, most of the discussion revolved around plans for the International Space Station. The committee members had varying opinions about many NASA issues, but most agreed that the space station should have a full complement of crew and the scientific capacity to accomplish the research originally intended. Other questioning involved the level of U.S. investment in aerospace R&D, cuts to the space shuttle budget, cooperation with DOD on launch technologies, and at what point the committee would be informed of agency plans and decisions that would influence the upcoming NASA reauthorization legislation. Few questions addressed space or Earth science issues.
As Deputy Director of OMB last year, O'Keefe was instrumental in pushing a plan that would only commit the U.S. to constructing the "core complete" space station configuration with a crew of three astronauts, while gaining a better understanding of the project's costs, engineering requirements, and scientific priorities. Once these challenges were better understood and management reforms undertaken, a decision would be made on whether to fund what O'Keefe now referred to as "excursions" beyond core complete, possibly including additional science capacity, a crew return vehicle, and a habitation module. O'Keefe expected to have a firmer cost estimate of the core complete station by this summer. There were some prickly exchanges as he defended this approach to committee members who wanted the Administration to commit now to the more extensive "assembly complete" version of the station. Ranking Minority Member Ralph Hall (D-TX) charged that achieving cost savings "by eliminating the very capabilities that make the space station worth doing in the first place seems a little misguided to me." He pointed to numerous previous studies prioritizing the research goals of the station and stated, "I can't believe you're saying" that 15 years' worth of scientific advice "is wrong and these distinguished scientists...didn't know what they were doing." Hall asked whether the core complete configuration fulfills the U.S.'s obligations to its international partners. O'Keefe could not give a definitive answer, but assured Hall that NASA's current plans would comply with all agreements through the core complete stage.
Rep. Bart Gordon (D-TN) noted that the budget request did not provide an estimate of future, or "outyear," funding for new Earth Observing System missions, pending a review of the entire U.S. Global Change Research Program. O'Keefe said his agency was not leading that review, and he did not know when it would be completed. Rep. Nick Smith (R-MI) pointed out that many scientists feel robotic space exploration programs are more efficient than manned missions; O'Keefe agreed that, because of the risks of space flight, unmanned missions are preferable and astronauts should only be used when absolutely necessary. Rep. Vern Ehlers (R-MI) commented that NASA was spending less on science today, in real dollars, than ten years ago, and asked how O'Keefe intended to increase funding for science. O'Keefe responded that achieving efficiencies in overhead, infrastructure and operations costs would enable greater spending on science. That's the reason, he explained, that he is "absolutely dogged in my commitment to implementing the President's Management Agenda." O'Keefe added that the space station itself was infrastructure, "a means to an end." Rep. John Larson (D-CT) asked about termination of the Pluto-Kuiper Belt mission; O'Keefe said he chose to delay the mission and instead put resources into developing improved power and propulsion technologies so a future mission would not take as long to accomplish. "The problem isn't the mission...or what we can learn," he said, but the span of time it would take to start receiving data.
Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) reiterated the point that research priorities should drive the space station configuration, rather than being dictated by a chosen configuration. O'Keefe agreed and said he would work with Congress to determine the appropriate program needs and priorities. "Whatever it costs to do a program that we can all be proud of" and that "we'll all be committed to," he said, "that's what the President's budget will sign up to."
"You've outlined a very ambitious agenda," said Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY), "and we want to help you get there." He added that the committee wanted to see space station construction proceed beyond core complete: "we want a true science investment for the future."