NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe formally submitted his resignation to President Bush in a handwritten letter yesterday, citing the need to earn the money necessary to send his three children to college.
"It is this [the president's] very commitment to family that draws me to conclude that I must depart public service," O'Keefe wrote. "The first of three children will begin college next fall. . . . I owe them the same opportunity my parents provided for me to pursue higher education without the crushing burden of debt thereafter."
O'Keefe said he would serve as administrator until Bush has named a successor "and in the hope that the Senate will act on your nominee by February. But, I will be completely guided by your preference."
O'Keefe spokesman Glenn Mahone confirmed that O'Keefe, who claims New Orleans as his home, is seeking to become chancellor of Louisiana State University's Baton Rouge campus, a job that pays $500,000 a year. As NASA administrator, he makes $158,000 a year.
LSU sources, who asked not to be quoted by name while O'Keefe's application is pending, said he would travel to Baton Rouge tomorrow and likely be named as chancellor late Thursday. LSU system President William L. Jenkins, in charge of the search, has known O'Keefe for years and urged him to apply for the job.
There was no immediate indication yesterday that the White House had a successor in mind for O'Keefe, 48, who moved to NASA from the White House budget office in late 2001, but many names have surfaced.
Former astronauts frequently mentioned include: Charles F. Bolden Jr., a retired Marine Corps major general and senior vice president of TechTrans International in Houston; former Kennedy Space Center director Robert L. Crippen, pilot of the first space shuttle flight; and Ronald Sega, the Defense Department's director of defense research and engineering.
Also mentioned are former Defense Department undersecretary for acquisition, technology and logistics Edward C. "Pete" Aldrich, who headed a panel studying the president's new moon-Mars initiative; former Defense Department Missile Defense Agency director Ronald T. Kadish, a retired Air Force lieutenant general; and former House Science Committee chairman Robert S. Walker (R-Pa.), now a Washington lobbyist.
Several of these would-be candidates could not be reached and none offered comment except Walker, whose office at Wexler & Walker issued a statement saying: "I am neither seeking the job nor, to my knowledge, am I being sought for the job."
O'Keefe submitted what Mahone described as a "personal letter to the president" about 12:30 p.m. yesterday, reviewing the two major events of his tenure -- the disintegration of the space shuttle Columbia and the deaths of its seven crew members on Feb. 1, 2003, and Bush's decision to focus NASA's human spaceflight program on returning to the moon and eventually traveling to Mars.
"NASA is the only agency in the world where its people are allowed to dream big and then work to make those dreams come true," O'Keefe wrote. "Who wouldn't treasure the opportunity to be a part of pioneering history?"