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

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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."

The son of Irish immigrants, O'Keefe has passions ranging from Civil War history to sports. At one point, he even toyed with the idea of becoming the Major League Baseball commissioner.

O'Keefe spent the Clinton years heading the national-security program at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. One of his projects entailed figuring out how the Defense Department should work with communities on disposal of chemical weapons.

W. Henry Lambright, a professor of public administration and political science, came up with the idea, and says the project provided insight into O'Keefe's obsession with open information.

"Sean was extremely adamant about the need to retrain these civil servants, many of whom had grown up in the cold war where everything was hush-hush. He preached that this was a new world and that it was extremely important to deal with people openly, especially when you fouled up," says Dr. Lambright.

As the current Bush administration began, O'Keefe became deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget. At the end of 2001, he headed to NASA.

A marked openness

Already, as NASA administrator, his dealings with Congress and the media have been markedly different from years past, when NASA was criticized for its defensiveness after the Challenger exploded in 1986. "I think NASA learned a lot in terms of not attempting to keep information back from the public," says Sen. Ted Stevens (R) of Alaska, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. "I do believe there has been full disclosure of everything they know."

He attributes that both to lessons learned from the Challenger disaster and the frank management style of O'Keefe, who was his chief of staff in the 1980s.

For instance, Senator Stevens invited O'Keefe to brief interested lawmakers Monday night on what additional funding NASA may need to ensure shuttle safety. Instead of asking for money, O'Keefe spent an hour and a half updating the senators on the accident and what NASA suspected went wrong.

Much of this comes as a surprise to scientists who worried that O'Keefe would be more interested in bean counting than exploring Mars. Indeed, when he came on board in 2001, O'Keefe's top priority was slashing the estimated $4.8 billion in cost overruns that threatened the International Space Station.

While he did oversee a round of drastic cuts in his first year, reshuffling management - replacing two-thirds of top executives by late 2002 - he also understood the need for future space exploration. Justthisweek, Bush's proposed budget included a 3 percent increase in NASA funding, bumping it to $15.5 billion.

"People are encouraged by the progress," says Joseph Alexander, director of the Space Studies Board at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington. "We were a little worried at first. He's not a techy; he's a manager. But this bullish budget shows that he is interested in real science."

Gail Russell Chaddock contributed from Washington.

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