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NASA's 'budgeteer' now called to a bigger role

By Kris AxtmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 7, 2003


It was a small town in northeastern Pennsylvania, one of many facing a possible military-base closing in the late 1990s. A local group fighting for the base was meeting with state representatives before presenting its case to the US government. Among their reasons for saving the base was the impressive record of the area's minor-league baseball team.

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After listening intently, Sean O'Keefe leaned forward and gently explained that the government was more interested in how fast a bolt was screwed in than in how fast a runner rounded first - that what would keep the base alive was proof of efficiency. The group focused on that, and the base survived.

It's a small story, but one that represents Mr. O'Keefe's shrewdness in playing the numbers game. For nearly a quarter century, he's been brought in to save beleaguered government agencies, offices with budget overruns and bookkeeping nightmares. Even his most ardent opponents concede his success.

With his shock of silver hair and whisk-broom moustache, he doesn't look like the typical buttoned-down bureaucrat. In fact, if Mr. Moose were nearby, you might mistake him for a somber Captain Kangaroo.

Now, just a year into his latest career as NASA administrator, the man who declared himself "a budgeteer, not a rocketeer" may face his toughest job yet. No longer will his focus be so much on containing costs, but rather on navigating the uncertain future of manned space flight - and finding out what sent the space shuttle Columbia crashing to earth.

"My heart goes out to him, but I can't think of someone I'd rather have in there right now," says Glen Thomas, chair of Pennsylvania's Public Utility Commission, who worked with O'Keefe to protect the state's military bases in the late 1990s. "I think he'll get to the bottom of it, make sure it never happens again, and be the steady rock of leadership that NASA needs right now."

In addition to being "a numbers guy" - and the first NASA administrator with a background concentrated in finance - O'Keefe is known for making human connections. He talks often of "the NASA family" and puts people instantly at ease. His fair dealings have earned him the respect of many in Washington, including his fly-fishing buddy, Vice President Dick Cheney, who has called him "one of my closest advisers."

'The wizard' of Capitol Hill

He earned the nickname "the Wizard" as the Pentagon's chief financial officer under then- Defense Secretary Cheney, and was asked to step in as secretary of the Navy in 1992, after the tailhook sexual-harassment scandal. With O'Keefe so young and lacking military experience, many were skeptical of his suitability to the task. But his transparent practices, aggressive cost cutting, and ouster of some the Navy's top brass earned him quick praise.

Charlie Nemfakos worked under O'Keefe at the time, and remembers the Navy's reluctance to close military bases. "Sean understood that it needed to be done, for the good of the department, for the good of the Navy, and for the good of the country. He said, 'I'll take the heat,' and wound up doing an enormous service to the taxpayers," says Mr. Nemfakos, director of internal-programs development for Lockheed Martin Naval Electronics and Surveillance Systems. "He is truly one of those people dedicated to the nation's well being."