NASA chief resigns

After three tumultuous years as administrator of NASA, Sean O'Keefe has resigned his post -- possibly to take a job as chancellor of Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.

"He submitted his resignation earlier today, it was accepted by the White House, and he has ... offered to stay until the president finds a successor," NASA spokesman Bob Jacobs told Government Executive Monday.

O'Keefe, 48, has applied for the $500,000-a-year university position, and the search committee considers him a top candidate. Its final hiring decision is expected Thursday.

O'Keefe's departure comes at a critical time for NASA, which is struggling to recover from the February 2003 space shuttle Columbia disaster, and beginning work on an ambitious and expensive new set of exploration goals.

The former deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget was sent to NASA in December 2001 with explicit instructions to clean up a $5 billion cost overrun in the U.S.-led International Space Station program. O'Keefe served as Navy secretary in 1992, in the aftermath of the Tailhook scandal, and as Pentagon comptroller before that. Before joining President George W. Bush's administration, he was a professor of business and government policy at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.

As NASA administrator, O'Keefe not only guided the space agency through a series of budget and ongoing organizational and safety culture reforms, but also used White House ties to focus NASA's exploration strategy. The plan is to return Americans to the moon by 2020, and then send them on a voyage to Mars.

"That will be his legacy, and that's pretty good work," said Jim Banke, speaking for a lobby known as the Coalition for Space Exploration. "Sean O'Keefe has done a remarkable job," said Banke, vice president of Florida operations for the nonprofit Space Foundation.

O'Keefe's departure also sets the stage for a reversal of two key decisions he made as administrator.

In the aftermath of the Columbia tragedy, O'Keefe accepted sight-unseen the recommendations of accident investigators and vowed to "raise the bar" by doing even more than investigators recommended to ensure the safety of astronauts when the shuttle returns to flight.

Shuttle program officials made it clear last week that they will not be able to keep O'Keefe's promise to equip future crews with a repair kit for the winged orbiters' fragile heat-resistant tile exterior. They said the technical challenges are too great to overcome.

Citing safety concerns, O'Keefe also resisted public and congressional pressure to mount a shuttle mission to repair the celebrated Hubble Space Telescope, opting instead to devise a mission to do the same work with robots. The National Academies of Science, which backed the proposal to employ humans in a report last week, urged NASA to reconsider.

The news of O'Keefe's departure surprised NASA employees and policymakers, many of whom expected him to stay until after the scheduled May or June flight of the space shuttle Discovery. NASA insiders and industry watchers also had anticipated a move to the Pentagon for O'Keefe, noting his close association with Vice President Dick Cheney.

Speculating about a possible replacement, news reports named several potential candidates, including retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Ronald Kadish, former director of the Ballistic Missile Agency; Robert Walker, former chairman of the House Science Committee; Ronald Sega, a former astronaut now serving as director of research and engineering in the Defense Department; Robert Crippen, former astronaut and former director of the Kennedy Space Center; and retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Simon "Pete" Worden, former deputy director of operations with U.S. Strategic Command and a University of Arizona research professor who most recently served as a congressional fellow on the staff of Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback.

Early Monday, a senior NASA official said none of the names being circulated in the press had any basis in fact.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by Brocade

    Best of 2016 Federal Forum eBook

    Earlier this summer, Federal and tech industry leaders convened to talk security, machine learning, network modernization, DevOps, and much more at the 2016 Federal Forum. This eBook includes a useful summary highlighting the best content shared at the 2016 Federal Forum to help agencies modernize their network infrastructure.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    GBC Flash Poll Series: Merger & Acquisitions

    Download this GBC Flash Poll to learn more about federal perspectives on the impact of industry consolidation.

  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    A DevOps Roadmap for the Federal Government

    This GBC Report discusses how DevOps is steadily gaining traction among some of government's leading IT developers and agencies.

  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    Joint Enterprise Licensing Agreements

    Read this eBook to learn how defense agencies can achieve savings and efficiencies with an Enterprise Software Agreement.

  • Sponsored by Cloudera

    Government Forum Content Library

    Get all the essential resources needed for effective technology strategies in the federal landscape.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.