Space agency chief resigns, seeks job as LSU chancellor

O'Keefe's stormy tenure saw Mars rover, Cassini triumphs, shuttle disaster

December 14, 2004|By Thomas H. Maugh II | Thomas H. Maugh II,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Sean O'Keefe, whose three roller-coaster years as NASA administrator saw the tragedy of the Columbia space shuttle disaster and the glory of the Mars rover and Cassini expeditions, resigned from the agency yesterday.

O'Keefe, a self-professed "bean counter" brought in by President Bush to bring the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's spiraling budget under control, represented a sharp departure from previous administrators. He had no background in astronautics.

He embraced the president's vision of putting men on Mars, but thought that using the shuttle to repair the Hubble Space Telescope was too dangerous.

O'Keefe, 48, will interview Thursday for a position as chancellor of Louisiana State University and is expected to be approved for the position this week. That position would pay $500,000 per year, compared to the $158,000 he now receives.

O'Keefe has three children nearing college age and has spent most of his career in the federal bureaucracy, where salaries are much lower than in industry and academia.

"I owe [my children] the same opportunity my parents provided for me to pursue higher education without the crushing burden of debt thereafter," he wrote in his resignation letter to the president. "I can't do that if I remain in public service."

His departure comes during a period of turmoil. The agency is still trying to resume shuttle flights after Columbia disintegrated during re-entry in 2003, killing seven astronauts. Rations on the International Space Station are running low and garbage is piling high because of the lack of shuttle flights.

A prestigious panel rejected as unworkable last week NASA's scenario of using a robot mission to repair the Hubble space telescope. O'Keefe had opposed sending a manned mission, saying it would violate NASA safety guidelines in the aftermath of the Columbia accident.

But the panel said a manned Hubble rescue flight would be only slightly more dangerous than planned missions to the International Space Station and would have a higher likelihood of success than using a robot.

O'Keefe said he would stay on until a successor is appointed by the president and approved by the Senate, but said he hopes the process will be completed by the end of February.

Some outsiders were unsympathetic - even relieved by his departure.

"The captain's abandoning a sinking ship, and he was assigned to the ship to keep it from sinking. So, I think it's doubly bad, because, in my view, he is essentially confessing that there's no hope for NASA on its current trajectory," said Alex Roland, a space historian at Duke University.

Retired NASA executive Seymour Himmel also isn't sorry to see O'Keefe go, calling him a bureaucrat whose bean-counting ways pervaded the entire space agency and sacrificed advanced engineering and research.

As for NASA's future, Himmel said: "It really depends upon the personality and character and beliefs of the replacement.

"I would be very concerned about it if it were just another military guy or bean counter, because ... I have visions of the old agency which I can't get out of my head," said Himmel, an engineer who worked at NASA from the beginning and until three years ago served on its safety advisory panel.

The list of potential successors circulating unofficially in Washington includes a military man, a congressman and three former astronauts. At the head of the list is Air Force Lt. Gen. Ronald Kadish, who was in charge of the Missile Defense Agency until September. Also on the list is former Pennsylvania Rep. Robert S. Walker, a member of the president's Moon-Mars Commission and a former chairman of the House Science Committee.

The three ex-astronauts most widely mentioned are Charles Bolden, Robert Crippen and Ronald Sega.

O'Keefe was deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget before taking over at NASA on Dec. 21, 2001. He was considered a calming influence after the turbulent decade of direction by Daniel S. Goldin, and he enjoyed a close relationship with Vice President Dick Cheney.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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