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US Space Agency Chief Resigns After Presiding Over Major Changes

The head of the U.S. space agency, NASA, has resigned after a tumultuous three years in office that included the loss of a space shuttle and its seven astronauts. A spokesman for President Bush has acknowledged that Sean O'Keefe intends to step down. Mr. O'Keefe is credited with beginning to reorient an agency beset by budget troubles and what some have called a lack of focus.

Sean O'Keefe became NASA administrator with a Bush administration mandate to get the agency's spending under control, particularly the escalating cost of the international space station. Unlike some previous NASA bosses who were aerospace engineers or astronauts, he is a management specialist who had been the deputy director of the agency that oversees the government's budget.

Thirty six months later, Mr. O'Keefe is given credit for beginning to change the way NASA projects costs on its big, multi-year technical programs. But the calamitous disintegration of the space shuttle Columbia and the death of its seven astronauts in early 2003 ensured that his tenure would not be simply about counting coins.

The Columbia accident set off a major Bush administration change in space policy. Instead of perpetuating the U.S. presence in low Earth orbit with the shuttle and space station, Mr. Bush in January announced plans to return astronauts to the moon late in the next decade with the longer term goal of sending humans to Mars. The shuttle is to be phased out by 2010 with U.S. participation in the space station after that still uncertain. New space exploration technologies are to be developed, including a new spaceship to ferry astronauts long distances.

In the meantime, Mr. O'Keefe has presided over a revamp of the shuttle program, which includes major enhancements in technology and procedures to help ensure its remaining missions are safe once it returns to flight next year. He has instituted management reforms intended to make NASA much more safety oriented.

A White House spokesman says President Bush believes Mr. O'Keefe has done a great job, and the head of the U.S. House of Representatives committee that oversees NASA says he has left the space agency in far better shape than he found it.

George Washington University space policy analyst Ray Williamson says Mr. O'Keefe's resignation is not surprising. "I'm not sure that having Sean O'Keefe stay longer would actually help that much at this point. He's made his mark on the agency and I'm not sure that he could accomplish a whole lot more," he said.

George Whitesides, executive director of the National Space Society, a private space advocacy organization headquartered in Washington agrees.

"My sense is this was the right time for him," he said. "He has always been someone who was going to help take the agency form a place where they had substantial problems of finances and otherwise to a place where someone else could start pushing forward on the vision. I think he's done that job and feels it's time to step aside and let somebody else take it from here."

But Ray Williamson at George Washington University wonders whether NASA's new emphasis on outer space exploration will come at the expense of other long-standing programs, such as its environmental monitoring missions from space.

"There are a number of people in the professional community that question whether NASA will now cut back on its efforts to explore an Earth-based kind of exploration from space and still continue to attempt to tackle some of the major environmental and other concerns about the globe and the future habitability of Earth."

Mr. O'Keefe has also been criticized for refusing to send astronauts to extend the life of the Hubble Space Telescope. He has called instead for development of robotic capabilities for that purpose so a shuttle crew would not be subjected to what he has described as a risky mission. But a prestigious National Academy of Sciences panel has rejected his view, saying a Hubble visit would pose no more risk than a trip to the space station.

The National Space Society's George Whitesides says the next NASA administrator will find such issues a major challenge. "The person will have to navigate the identity of NASA itself. Is it going to be defined as an exploration agency? Is it going to stay with some mix of other things? What is NASA really for? I think these are the most important questions the next administrator is going to have to come to a leadership consensus on and that is not an easy thing to do," he said.

In the meantime, news reports say Sean O'Keefe is being considered for the post of chancellor of Louisiana State University at more than three times his NASA salary.