Disaster gives NASA administrator, hired to rein in money problems, new tasks


Published: Saturday, February 1, 2003 at 1:54 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, February 1, 2003 at 3:02 p.m.

WASHINGTON (AP) - Just a year into his job, the NASA chief sent to rein in budget problems now must find answers to the Columbia disaster and restore confidence in the space agency.

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NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe wipes his face before a media briefing, Saturday, Feb. 1, 2003, at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. O'Keefe was commenting on the loss of the space shuttle Columbia and her crew of seven astronauts as the vessel made its way to landing on Saturday morning.

AP Photo/Chris O'Meara

On Saturday, NASA's money problem became administrator Sean O'Keefe's human problem: the space shuttle Columbia and its crew were lost.

"This is a tragic day for the NASA family but also for the American people," O'Keefe said at a news conference at Kennedy Space Center.

He said the families were assured the agency will begin working "immediately to recover their loved ones and discover the cause of this tragedy."

O'Keefe is viewed within the agency as a manager, not a visionary, a man who believes the way to success for the space program is to build a strong financial foundation by controlling costs and installing an integrated financial management system.

On Jan. 15, 2001, O'Keefe had become NASA's 10th administrator from his job as the No. 2 official for the White House Office of Management and Budget. He was sent to the agency with orders to solve persistent financial problems such as cost overruns, many involving NASA's big-ticket programs like the international space station.

After talking with President Bush on Saturday, O'Keefe, 47, flew to Cape Kennedy in Florida, where Columbia was supposed to have landed 15 minutes after it was lost. That's where he met with families of the mission's seven astronauts, before the official declaration that the shuttle had gone down.

It was not the kind of job he is accustomed to. These were NASA's first deaths on his watch.

"They dedicated their lives to pushing scientific challenges for all of us on earth," O'Keefe said after new that the space shuttle Columbia had lost communication with Mission Control.

"They did it with a happy heart, willingly, with great enthusiasm." he said.

O'Keefe is seen as friendly and approachable, a turnaround from the fiery personality of his predecessor, Dan Goldin.

His superb connections with the White House are viewed as a plus for the space program.

Last February, before a House Science Committee hearing on NASA's fiscal year 2003 budget, O'Keefe said that while NASA is a "crown jewel of the federal government, the crown jewels of NASA are its people."

O'Keefe told the lawmakers of major challenges that stood standing in the way of bringing the space shuttle program to where it should be. It must be restructured in cost, technical and operations management, procedures and infrastructure. There also was a need for safety upgrades, he said.

As the first deputy cabinet officer appointed in the Bush administration, O'Keefe oversaw the federal budget and government-wide management initiatives.

Before joining the White House's budget office, O'Keefe was a professor of business and government policy at the Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.

He also served as the director of National Security Studies, a partnership of Syracuse University and Johns Hopkins University.

Before his appointment as Secretary of the Navy in July 1992 by the first President Bush, O'Keefe served as comptroller and chief financial officer of the Defense Department.

O'Keefe earned his bachelor's degree in 1977 from Loyola University of New Orleans and his masters in public administration a year later from Syracuse University.

He lives in Ashburn, Va., with his wife and three children.

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