NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe—The Man with the Space Plan

Thursday, August 01, 2002

Sean O'Keefe
Photograph courtesy of NASA
NASA is lurching through another period of transition, attempting to sustain the costly International Space Station while speeding up the unmanned missions that have brought the agency some of its greatest scientific triumphs. Last December, the Bush administration picked an unlikely candidate to lead the agency to new glories: Sean O'Keefe, formerly the deputy director of the White House's Office of Management and Budget and a man better known for his business acumen than for his astronautics expertise. Discover Associate Editor Kathy Svitil spoke with O'Keefe about his plans to sharpen NASA's mission.

You have been derided as a "bean counter." Does that bother you?
I guess everyone has some moniker, and that one is as inoffensive as any I've ever been called. I'll take it as comparatively high praise. If it speaks to the question of being conscious of what things require in terms of resource capabilities, I think that is a managerial and a leadership obligation. To always be capable of recognizing what resource commitments will be necessary when you ask people to do something. That is a responsibility that needs to be honored. To the extent that that is what that means, it is fine. I certainly don't interpret it to mean an accountant, because the accountants have never recognized me as being an accountant in their guild. I don't fit in that regard. I am not a CPA.

Is there a future for the manned space program after the Space Station—and if so, would it include a return to the moon?
Absolutely, there is a future. And it is human space flight. There are men and women who are involved in that program who will continue on. Our greatest challenge right now, I think, is to assure that wherever we pursue human space flight and exploration objectives, we assure the safety of the folks we ask to engage in that. Right now that is a challenge beyond low-Earth orbit, where we are operating the International Space Station and shuttle flights, because of radiation effects and things like that. We are busy trying to conquer those limitations to bolster and enhance the human space flight program as much as we possibly can.

Will we ever return to the moon?
I think if there is cause or a reason to, if there is a purpose in exploring that destination or using it as a way-station for other destinations. But in and of itself, until we can answer the question of 'why?', for it's own sake, I don't believe it would be necessary.

NASA has been reviewing designs for the next-generation space shuttle. What would you do differently?
First and foremost, get there faster. We've managed to accomplish the amazing task of getting into low-Earth orbit in 8 1/2 minutes. We know how to do that. So the next-generation of space-launch initiative candidates will all have as a characteristic to accomplish at least that--launch into low-Earth orbit and arrive there rapidly--but then should take it to the next step, which is to propel at a faster rate, more expeditiously, to achieve exploration objectives that are involved. So the more cost-effective as well as reliable and reusable means that next-generation space launch initiative candidates will bring for us is a capability to master what we have already accomplished and do it more cost efficiently and more reliably and then in turn to manage greater propulsion capabilities over longer distances.

You've given NASA a new mandate. What does it mean to you?
"Improve life here" speaks to our responsibilities and opportunities to help protect our own home planet.. environmental concerns, climate conditions, any number of different factors that we can help predict better or quantify or utilize the data to help look at enforceable and reasonable climate change regimes as a matter of international policy would be quite a contribution. We are participating in that activity with plenty of others. It also speaks to the use of capabilities for the protection of ourselves as Americans. There is any number of reconnaissance capabilities that we have developed for a wide range of data and information collection purposes that have multiple uses.

One example is NASA's participation in the diagnostics that went into the American Airlines crash outside Long Island. The idea of participating in those kinds of efforts to help improve civil aviation capabilities, commercial aviation opportunities, is a main charter objective as well, that protects the home planet.

The notion of "extending life to there" speaks to the human space flight dimension and the opportunity to continue that exploration objective as well. And searching for life is best evidenced by our continuing space exploration efforts to examine and determine presence of life. Certainly the revelation that Mars has ice packs speaks to the concentration of a significant volume of water, and where there is water there is the possibility of life, sufficient to suggest that we ought to explore that. I guess given the expanse and the capabilities of the universe across the board, this is in part a recognition of what our space scientist, Ed Weiler refers to as an effort to sweep the last crumb from the plate of human arrogance. In a universe of this expanse, the notion that we're 'it' is rather intellectually suspect. So as a consequence I think we have an obligation to continue the quest to determine where we fit in the greater scheme of the universe overall.

What does NASA need to do that the agency isn't doing now?
I wouldn't say we aren't doing it now, but I'd say that we need to put more emphasis on being selective, being focused, and really sticking to what is part of the original NASA charter which is to be entrepreneurial, find new ways to conquer extant, current, limitations that prevent us from exploring, discovering, improving our life condition here on Earth as well as throughout our solar system. We are about a lot of different things and we are not as selective as we could be, and so as a consequence what I hope we'll focus on more and what I hope to bring to the agenda is more of a selectivity in the kinds of things that we are going to engage in.

Many people consider the International Space Station an example of the agency's loss of focus. Was building it a mistake?
Certainly not. I think it is a capability that, if we didn't have it, we'd have to figure out a way to develop it. Because it provides an extraordinary opportunity to look at a wide range of scientific research endeavors that would not be feasible here on Earth. The opportunity for biomedical and materials research in microgravity research, specifically -- which we cannot duplicate. We've done some things that are really quite remarkable here on Earth, and in labs that would give you a close approximation for a limited duration of time, but it is nothing like the gold-standard microgravity condition that the space station provides that we could ever duplicate here on Earth. In my mind, it is a scientific and research platform, infrastructure and capability.. it is peerless. It is beyond any parallel we can find anywhere. The fact that it also represents the greatest capabilities and experience of 16 nations united in the conviction and commitment to world class research tells me that it is a capability that we really ought to cultivate and continue to assure that it be available for opportunities that are there.

What is the most exiting project at NASA today?
There are so many to choose from. Between the nuclear initiative, dealing with the technology limitation I find exciting. Every shuttle launch has to absolutely excite every human being, to see that capability demonstrated. The Hubble Telescope is performing in a way that no one dared imagine when it was deployed a dozen years ago. All these capabilities are staggering. But the most exciting project to me, most stimulating, is the opportunity to translate all of what we do to classrooms. It's an opportunity to shape what we already have available -- we don't have to do anything different -- to make it more exciting and accessible to kids, to motivate interest in science, math, engineering and technology.

NASA hasn't had splashy triumphs like Mars Pathfinder lately. Can you recapture the feeling of excitement?
I beg to differ. I think the splashy triumph that was just revealed last week, with the images coming back from Hubble, that were far in excess of anything we ever imagined. This is the beginning of the next rewrite of every astronomy textbook. The mission to accomplish that, and to upgrade that capability, was a triumph of engineering prowess as well as the extraordinary competence of seven very dedicated people who spent a lot of time tethered to the side of a space shuttle and a giant telescope. That was stunning. The mission to the International Space Station to install the F-0 truss, which will now provide the capability for the fully expanded International Space Station we've all talked about, was a wildly successful endeavor and one that was a triumph across the board. You name it.. there has been one successful event after another. I'm consistently knocking on wood because I can't believe that the string is continuing.

Still, a new truss doesn't inspire the imagination. What about a high-frontier effort, such as the much-discussed mission to Pluto?
The National Academy of Sciences is deliberating now on what they think are the highest priority exploration objectives within our solar system, and to the extent that that [Pluto] proves to be a high priority, that certainly would be support to the probability of exploring Pluto at this point. At the present we are limited in our ability to get there. We are traveling at speeds that necessitate spending the better part of the next four years getting ready, and then waiting another ten years to actually get there, so we can achieve about a three to four month drive-by. That is a real serious technical and technology limitation.

So first and foremost, if there is a reason to go, and an exploration objective that is considered high on the scale by the scientific community, that would bolster the case. And then secondly, we have to conquer the means to get there and do it in a way that raises our probability of getting there in any period of time to actually inform the research agenda that would justify the purpose of going there in the first place.

You've made nuclear propulsion development a priority for the agency. What are your goals? Do you have a timeline in mind?
As quickly as we can. We've been living with this technical limitation for the past four decades. We are basically traveling at speeds today for exploration that equate to about the same speed that John Glenn was restricted to when he first flew Friendship 7, forty years ago. That is a propulsion and power-generation limitation that we've had for a long time, and the sooner we conquer that, the faster we can get anywhere there might be consensus on where we should go.

Until then we are dealing with this structural limitation, and the laws of physics are pretty immutable so as a consequences we are living with the same limitations we've had for a long time. If there is one thing NASA has been about and has been successful at for its 44 year history, it has been to break through the technical limitations and develop leap-ahead technologies and means to accomplish objectives. This is right up our portfolio of what we ought to conquer as soon as we get the where with all to do so. In large measure because nuclear fission option is the preferred alternative right now because it is the most mature technology. There will be other technologies we will certainly pursue, but this holds the greatest prospect for earliest development and most timely deployment to speed the exploration agenda wherever you might select you want to go.

What about the radiation risks from using nuclear power sources in space? How do you address the concerns of environmentalists about this?
Straight on. I am anxious to enjoin those questions with the environmental community, and for that matter, any public concerns at large--any time, everywhere, and when ever. The safety issue is paramount in our minds, and it is one that is a hallmark of the agency's charter. We've had a remarkably good record on our safe use of RTGs over the course of the last 20-odd years on better than thirty missions. We need something more robust than that. That is a power pack or power capacity.. a battery capability. By comparison to power-generation propulsion capabilities. Drawing on the experience of 45 years of perfect safety record that the United States Navy has had of operating nuclear powered vessels with reactors that are dramatically more powerful than we'd ever need, I think is pretty good testimonial to the fact that we know how to do this stuff and it is a matter of developing it and doing it in a very conscious and conscientiously safe manner.
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