Major changes in store for NASA

Privatizing the space shuttle program is one of several management reforms the Bush administration is considering for NASA, President Bush's pick to lead the space agency told Congress Friday.

Sean O'Keefe, currently deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, said at his Senate confirmation hearing that NASA must cut its infrastructure costs so it can refocus on its core mission of exploring space. He also tried to reassure senators that promoting science, not cutting the budget, is his chief objective as he takes the reins of NASA.

"I don't know what the exact number of [space shuttle] flights should be, but it ought to be driven by payload requirements and the scientific mission," he said. O'Keefe will use the President's management agenda, including its competitive sourcing initiative, as a baseline for fixing the agency's personnel and budgetary woes, he said.

"If anything…what I find most challenging about the opportunity and what I'm looking forward to is the opportunity to implement the President's management agenda at an organization like NASA," O'Keefe said. Further privatization of the shuttle program is consistent with the Bush competitive sourcing plan, he said. The United Space Alliance, a partnership between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, already handles some shuttle operations. But O'Keefe's OMB background clearly worried some senators who oppose the administration's decision to cap funding of the International Space Station, which is nearly $5 billion over budget. "I don't think the leader of NASA can be just a budget-cutter," said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, who added she supports O'Keefe's nomination with "reservations." Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., repeatedly questioned O'Keefe over the report of the International Space Station Management and Cost Evaluation Task Force, a panel assembled by OMB and NASA to review the program. To curtail costs, the panel urged scaling back the station design so it accommodates fewer astronauts than originally planned, a move that will limit the amount of research the station can perform, according to Nelson. O'Keefe praised the report and said he will try to reconvene the task force to develop a long-term scientific vision for NASA. "Between the [task force] report and the President's Management Agenda, those are the two documents that I hope will be required reading throughout the organization," he said. In written testimony, O'Keefe criticized NASA's personnel policies in recent years, such as use of voluntary "buy-outs" to downsize the workforce. Because the departures were voluntary, NASA could not target its personnel losses with precision. "Unfortunately, such measures have an unpredictable impact on the agency's skill mix," he wrote. O'Keefe added that the administration's Managerial Flexibility Act would give the agency personnel flexibilities to make quick hires. O'Keefe is expected to receive quick confirmation and hopes to be at NASA by early January.

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