New NASA chief supports recommendations to scale back space station

Tuesday, January 8th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ NASA's new boss, Sean O'Keefe, said Tuesday he supports an independent panel's recommendations to scale back the budget-breaking space station program, at least for the time being.

On just his fifth day on the job at NASA, O'Keefe stressed that the agency needs to focus on the international space station _ but not at the expense of everything else.

O'Keefe, a former budget official, said the cost overruns facing the space station program _ estimated to be in the billions _ are manageable.

``Let's focus on those issues which are highly manageable,'' O'Keefe said in his first meeting with reporters. ``They're thorny. They're tough. They're going to be a challenge. All that. But they're highly manageable _ and not at the expense of so many other things that this organization is capable of.''

O'Keefe called last year's suggestions by an independent task force for reining in space station costs ``a good point of departure ... a very good blueprint.''

In November, the task force blasted the cost overruns in the space station program and criticized NASA for not even knowing how much those overruns would be over the next few years. The group suggested that NASA reduce its space station work force, cut back the number of shuttle flights to the orbiting outpost and stick to a three-person crew for the near future, far fewer than the seven originally envisioned.

O'Keefe said he does not consider the 3-year-old space station a flop because of its limited scientific research at present and its financial problems. But he added that its scientific and technological objectives need to be defined more crisply.

``It ought to be driven by what the science and technology agenda calls for,'' he said.

O'Keefe was serving as deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget when President Bush nominated him in November to replace retiring NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin. O'Keefe was confirmed by the Senate right before Christmas and reported to NASA headquarters on Jan. 2.

``I'm still very much in a listen mode around the organization and will be for some time to come here as we work through a variety of different issues,'' O'Keefe said. ``But I think after five days what I can confirm is what we all know as Americans, which is, 'This is really an extraordinary place. It's an amazing organization that has a very legendary history of 40-plus years.''

O'Keefe acknowledged his lack of experience in the aerospace field, But he noted: ``I intend to utilize naivete as a virtue in this case. I don't have any preset solution of what the answer ought to be for any dimension of what it is we do here. It's an opportunity, I think, to think fresh about a variety of things.''

He added with emphasis: ``It's all on the table.''