With NASA's leadership shuffle, big goals and uncertain future

Nearly three years after the Columbia disaster, O'Keefe's resignation paves the way for a 'nuts and bolts' overhaul.

When NASA's Space Shuttle Columbia broke apart over East Texas almost two years ago, killing its crew of seven, many wondered: What will become of the struggling space agency?

Prior to the accident, there was growing criticism of cost overruns, poor management, and lack of a clear mission. After the accident, NASA found itself without a shuttle to continue its work on the International Space Station; even today, the shuttle is incomplete.

And leading the agency through these years of turmoil was a self-described bean counter with no aerospace experience.

Now, after three years, Sean O'Keefe has announced his resignation from NASA's top post, and while his accomplishments are still being debated, no one doubts he had one of its toughest assignments.

The space agency that Mr. O'Keefe took over has become a different agency with a different mission. The ambitious space-exploration initiative proposed earlier this year by President Bush will require an administrator who understands the technical side of things - and is equipped to deal with continued wrangling over NASA's future.

"NASA is in better shape now than it's been in a long time," says Jerry Grey, director of science and technology policy at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. "Mr. O'Keefe did an excellent job getting the agency back on an even financial keel. But what they need now is someone who can manage the many, many details of an extensive space-exploration program."

Indeed, O'Keefe had the right skills at the right time, but NASA now needs an administrator with strong scientific knowledge, says George Whitesides, executive director of Washington's National Space Society.

"We are about to get into the nuts and bolts of the vision, and it's going to take someone who can cast their own eye on these really important technical decisions," he says.

The president's initiative calls for NASA to complete the International Space Station and end its shuttle program by 2010. A new spacecraft would then ferry astronauts to the moon between 2015 and 2020 to prepare for future missions to Mars.

But few of the initiative's space-exploration details have been worked out, fueling skepticism that Bush is not really committed to the project. He announced almost a year ago his goal of returning to the moon - yet there are still no conceptual drawings of what the spacecraft will look like, says John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a defense and space-policy research group. "Any program that doesn't have artwork is not really a program."

He believes NASA has never been part of the president's agenda, and that O'Keefe was brought in simply to keep the problematic agency out of the headlines.

NASA "can't help with the global war on terrorism. It can't help fight the war in Iraq. It's not a faith-based initiative. It won't help with tax cuts for the rich. It's just bad news about dead astronauts and cost overruns, and I suspect Sean's marching orders were to make it go away," says Mr. Pike.

O'Keefe was sworn in as the 10th NASA administrator in December 2001. He immediately began to rein in spending on the International Space Station, but ended up having to shepherd the agency through one of its toughest periods: the Columbia disaster in February 2003.

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board concluded that a decades-long lack of strategic vision at NASA contributed to the tragedy, as did longstanding problems of mismanagement and wasteful spending. Many of those problems still exist, say experts, despite O'Keefe's efforts to eradicate them. But changing an entire culture takes time.

"The agency has been operating for 35 years now without any long-range human space flight agenda, and 11 months are not enough to reverse 35 years of habit," says Howard McCurdy, a space historian at American University in Washington. "One of the major challenges for the new administrator will be to bring back the culture of Apollo, when NASA was focused and disciplined."

Even that 1960s culture wasn't created overnight, he emphasizes. It took NASA four years to reorganize itself after President Kennedy announced the goal of sending an American to the moon before the end of the decade.

Reorganizing NASA to accomplish Bush's goal of sending astronauts back to the moon and then to Mars will require far more work and is still a long way off - even with the $16.2 billion budget O'Keefe helped secure last month.

"O'Keefe won the budget battle. But now the mission should be to protect the fledgling and vulnerable space-exploration program," says Dr. McCurdy. To do so, he says, the White House should work toward the confirmation of a new administrator as quickly as possible - before Congress delves into next year's agenda.

NASA will never be able to accomplish its new goal, some say, if it continues to help complete the International Space Station at an annual cost of $7 billion for the next five years.

"It's the 800-pound gorilla in the space arena, and it can't be ignored," says Edward Hudgins, Washington director of the Objectivist Center. "The president's goal will be delayed for a decade or longer in order to complete a station that isn't really going to do anything."

Indeed, many experts believe that astronauts have to spend so much time maintaining the space station that they are left with little time for experiments. Even the US government has admitted that it is continuing to fund work on the station, in part, out of a sense of obligation to its international partners.

"The president has pulled us out of countless treaties and international commitments. But he has not made it clear why he feels we have to continue with this one," says Alex Roland, a space historian at Duke University in Durham, N.C. "It's a horrible waste of resources and postpones getting on with our future. And I don't see how a new administrator can change that trajectory."

Indeed, says Mr. Hudgins, completing the space station "is the fatal flaw at NASA and in the president's plan, and if a new administrator comes in and simply tries to push that rock up the hill, they may find it too heavy a burden."

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