NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe, who has led the U.S. space program through one of its worst tragedies and into one of its most ambitious endeavors, will likely resign this week to take a $500,000-a-year job as chancellor of Louisiana State University's Baton Rouge campus, university officials said yesterday.
Charles Zewe, a spokesman for the Louisiana State University Board of Supervisors, said LSU System President and interim Chancellor William L. Jenkins had "actively encouraged O'Keefe," who claims New Orleans as his home, to seek the job vacated in June, and O'Keefe formally applied late Friday. News of O'Keefe's application was reported yesterday in the Orlando Sentinel. A spokesman said O'Keefe was not available for comment.
NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe reacts with pleasure at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California to the safe landing of the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit in January.
(Pool Photo Wally Skalij)
University sources, who declined to be identified until the selection is confirmed, said O'Keefe would travel to Baton Rouge on Wednesday to tour the campus and meet with faculty and students, then meet Thursday with the search committee before being confirmed that night by the board of supervisors. The job will put O'Keefe in charge of the biggest campus in the Louisiana state system -- 31,000 students and about 3,000 employees and staff members.
The White House had no immediate comment on O'Keefe's expected departure, and no names of a potential successor have surfaced. There was no immediate indication that the White House had forced O'Keefe out.
NASA sources, who declined to be named pending formal announcement of O'Keefe's intentions, said LSU had approached O'Keefe earlier this year, but he had declined to discuss his plans until after last month's election. One source noted that O'Keefe had three children approaching college age and had had little opportunity to make any substantial money during a career largely devoted to public service. During the Clinton administration, he taught at Pennsylvania State University and Syracuse University.
Whoever succeeds O'Keefe at NASA will inherit a turbulent but aggressively high-profile agency still recovering from the loss of space shuttle Columbia last year, even as it tries to restructure itself for President Bush's "Vision for Space Exploration," a decades-long plan to return humans to the moon by 2020 and eventually send them to Mars. O'Keefe last month helped NASA win congressional approval for a $16.2 billion budget for 2005 to start the new program.
O'Keefe, 48, who began his government career as a congressional staffer and budget expert, gained prominence as secretary of the Navy during the administration of President George H.W. Bush. Regarded as a protégé of then-Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney, O'Keefe became a deputy director of the White House budget office after the current President Bush's inauguration.
O'Keefe went to NASA in late 2001, charged with improving the agency's management and accounting practices, a task at which he largely succeeded. But his job changed radically on Feb. 1, 2003, when Columbia disintegrated on re-entry, killing all seven astronauts on board and plunging the space program into a prolonged period of grief-stricken re-evaluation.
Several O'Keefe-era initiatives remain unfinished. The space shuttle's return to flight, scheduled for May, has been an agency priority for almost two years. Also pending is the unresolved question of whether to service the Hubble Space Telescope with a robotic spacecraft -- O'Keefe's preferred solution -- or to send the shuttle, as has been the practice.
Finally, the agency is still involved in restructuring itself and reordering its priorities to put Bush's moon-Mars project at the center of the NASA agenda. The initiative is regarded with skepticism by some agency officials and members of Congress who worry that essential science projects will be sacrificed for what they describe as the uncertain rewards of human space travel.
Louisiana State's Zewe said the board of supervisors has needed a chancellor since Mark Emmert resigned in June to go to the University of Washington. Jenkins, as LSU system president, has overseen a search to fill the job.
"There is no deadline," Zewe said in a telephone interview yesterday from New Orleans. "One of the things Dr. Jenkins has stressed is not to move forward until a candidate was found who seemed to fit. The board believes that O'Keefe fits."