- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 12, 2004

From combined dispatches

NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe, whose tenure has been overshadowed by the 2003 Columbia disaster, plans to resign as head of the space agency.

Mr. O’Keefe, who also has worked at the federal Office of Management and Budget and as U.S. Navy secretary, could leave NASA before the expected May or June liftoff of the first shuttle to launch since the Columbia accident, the Houston Chronicle reported yesterday.

The administrator is a top candidate for the Louisiana State University chancellor spot and will meet Thursday with the committee looking for someone to fill the $500,000-a-year job heading the Baton Rouge campus, said Joel Tohline, chairman of the search committee.

The newspaper, citing sources it did not identify, said an announcement could come as early as today. But Florida Today reported that a White House team is weighing five candidates and plans to announce Mr. O’Keefe’s departure and pick a new administrator by Thursday.

Leading the president’s list is Air Force Lt. Gen. Ronald Kadish, who directed the effort to develop a system to shield the country from a missile attack, Florida Today said. It said the other four men under consideration are former Rep. Robert S. Walker, Pennsylvania Republican, and former shuttle astronauts Ron Sega, Charles Bolden and Robert Crippen.

White House spokeswoman Suzy DeFrancis declined to comment. Messages left yesterday with NASA in Washington and at Johnson Space Center in Houston weren’t returned.

Mr. O’Keefe, 48, applied for the LSU job late Friday or early Saturday, and is among several people being heavily recruited, Mr. Tohline said. Mr. O’Keefe declined to comment to the Chronicle.

He has led the space agency through a tumultuous time that began with cost overruns when he was named to the job in 2001, through the Space Shuttle Columbia accident that killed seven astronauts in 2003, to a new space vision from President Bush that calls for manned missions to the moon and Mars.

In April, a survey follow-up on the post-Columbia effort to change NASA’s culture found many problems remaining and space agency employees still afraid to speak up about safety concerns. “The leadership’s got to take it on,” he said, “starting with me.”

More recently, Mr. O’Keefe has been under fire for his insistence that it is too risky to send astronauts to repair the popular Hubble Space Telescope to keep it running. His reluctance is based in large part on the findings of the Columbia accident investigators who blamed the disaster on overconfident management and inattention to safety.

When tapped in 2001, Mr. O’Keefe acknowledged he had no experience in astronautics. He described himself, with some humor, as a “bean-counter,” and his tenure at NASA has been marked by a management style bent on efficiency and practical economy.

He saw the recent full funding of NASA’s 2005 budget at $16.2 billion as a mandate to pursue the Bush administration vision for human space exploration to the moon and eventually to Mars.

The New Orleans native taught business administration and management at Syracuse and Pennsylvania State universities before becoming secretary of the Navy under President George Bush. He became deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget under President George W. Bush before he took over NASA.

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