By Marjorie Censer
Capital Business Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 11, 2010; 10:08 AM
Former NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe, who was critically injured in the Alaska plane crash Monday that left five people dead, took over late last year as chief executive of the North American unit of European Aeronautic Defence and Space, which is vying to build a fleet of new aerial refueling tankers for the U.S. Air Force.
EADS had teamed with Northrop Grumman to win the $35 billion program in 2008, but the award drew fire from lawmakers on Capitol Hill and was overturned after rival bidder Boeing successfully challenged the Pentagon's decision-making process. The Defense Department has since relaunched the tanker competition.
After O'Keefe joined EADS in November, he quickly set out to burnish the company's image in Washington. With a slight drawl and an affable personality, he projected a quiet confidence in his new employer's ability to prevail in a relaunched competition for the lucrative tanker contract.
On the day EADS delivered its new tanker proposal -- submitted without its former partner Northrop, which bowed out of the bidding in March -- O'Keefe said simply that the company planned to win and would build up its staff and facilities accordingly.
"We intend to act that way from this moment forward," he said.
O'Keefe, 54, acknowledged in a May interview that his longstanding Washington connections could prove useful to the foreign-owned EADS, but he insisted that EADS is well qualified to build the aircraft.
"This is not designing a new high-performance jet aircraft, this is not suspending laws of physics," he said. "And so we get two comparable aerospace companies that know how to do this stuff, and that's what's made this such an interesting thing to watch."
O'Keefe's injuries include a broken pelvis. In a statement Tuesday afternoon, EADS Chairman Ralph D. Crosby Jr. said: "It was with a great sense of relief and gratitude that we learned that Sean and his son, Kevin, survived the aircraft crash in Alaska." Crosby said the company looks forward to O'Keefe's recovery and return.
O'Keefe served as NASA administrator under President George W. Bush for about three years, and was at the agency's helm when the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated during reentry in 2003. He left the agency in 2005 to serve as chancellor of Louisiana State University.
A graduate of Loyola University in New Orleans, O'Keefe also served as Navy secretary and was a staffer on the Senate Appropriations Committee. He was a longtime friend of former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, who was among five people killed in Monday's crash.
According to an EADS-provided biography, O'Keefe is married to Laura McCarthy O'Keefe, and they have three children.