A Day in the Life of NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe

By Keith Cowing
March 22, 2004
Filed under ,
A Day in the Life of NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe

So much of what a large agency such as NASA does on any given day seems to just happen by itself. As for how the agency itself is actually run – especially on a moment by moment basis – by the person at the top is a mystery to nearly all.

I was offered a rather unique opportunity a few days ago – one that allowed me to personally witness a day in the life of NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe. Actually, the coverage spanned two consecutive days, but as you will see, it might as well have been just one 37 hour day interrupted by a short power nap.

To be certain, other reporters have flown aboard NASA One – a number did so after the Columbia accident during trips to witness debris recovery efforts. This trip would be somewhat different given that it would take us to two states and nearly dozen venues ranging from the swank Plaza Hotel to a middle school in an economically depressed region of Ohio.

The approach I took during this trip was not so much to document who said what – but rather how things were done and the mode and pace O’Keefe and his staff maintained. There are a few exceptions to what I write about – in many cases much of what I heard (especially on the jet) was under the condition that it was off the record. In addition, there are a few aspects of the travel arrangements which, in a post 9-11 world, I feel are best left out.

That said, what follows is a day in the life of NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe.


As I understood our itinerary we would be traveling from Washington DC to New York City, spending the night in New York, flying to Cleveland the next day for a full day of activities in and around Glenn Research Center, and then flying back to Washington that night.

I arrived at National Airport at 12:00 noon or so. After parking my car I made my way to the FAA hangar where a number of government planes are housed. Once through security I walked down a long gray path painted on the hangar floor. There were three jets in the hangar that day. Two were being prepped for imminent use, the other was being given a touch-up paint job.

The waiting room is not unlike that which you’d find in a medium sized general aviation airport anywhere in the U.S. First to arrive was Pat Smith from NASA. I had spoken to her earlier about travel arrangements. While we waited for everyone else to show up I got my first window into how O’Keefe’s schedule is planned. Having been an advance man and traveling staffer for Gov. Jerry Brown’s 1980 Presidential and 1982 Senate campaigns, none of this was exactly new to me – but I hadn’t had the hands-on experience in doing so for many years.

Part of the process is a detailed itinerary which follows a format that seems to span the decades and was quite familiar. The itinerary covers who is traveling, when they leave, where they are going, who the contacts are at each location – all mapped against a travel timeline which, as is always the case, is open to real time adjustment. As I would soon learn, this trip would see a lot of real time adjustments.

“Wheels up” was set for 1:00 pm. Around 12:45 pm Sean O’Keefe, NASA Associate Administrator for Public Affairs Glenn Mahone, and O’Keefe’s Executive Assistant Shiron Gaines arrived. After a short wait we exited the terminal and walked across the tarmac to the plane. “NASA One”, as it is often called, is a Gulfstream G3 jet which can seat twelve. On this first leg there would be only four of us – but that number would soon grow to full capacity.

The plane is not new – but it is comfortable. Contrary to some of the urban legends that arose during Dan Goldin’s imperial administratorship, the plane is not a flying palace. A few recent space-related pictures adorn the wall and a special cover with O’Keefe’s name on it sits over the back of one seat. Other than that, flying on this plane is not remarkably different than a small commuter jet – except that you follow a flexible departure and arrival plan.

While the seats are on the borderline between business class and first class, that is soon lost when you see how the plane is used. This is more like a flying bus/SUV than a corporate jet. Boxes of awards to be given, and other materials occupy seats. In addition, people spread out materials to work causing usable volume to shrink fast. Indeed, from my time on this plane, I have to say that 90% or more of the time is spent hard at work – regardless of whether it is 6:30 AM or 8:00 PM.

Hurry up and Wait

We were supposed to depart National Airport at 1:00 pm. That never came close to happening. Weather at Teterboro airport was bad due to the growing snowstorm that was sweeping up the east coast. Weather at all other New York metro region airports was just as bad. Indeed, in order to get planes into one airport, others had to be shut down. At first we were told that there’d be a 40 minute delay before we got word as to when we’d depart. That wait eventually extended nearly two hours.

The delay, while causing Glenn Mahone to have to make several calls to the New York Times (our first appointment). O’Keefe spent most of the ground time with Shiron working up the schedule for the coming weeks. As it was described to me, this was to be a rather intricate trip involving stops in Colorado, Oregon, northern and southern California. I asked O’Keefe just how far ahead he was planning things. This caused him to chuckle. As I was to see, despite excellent planning and scheduling, things can and would change multiple times in the course of a day.

If you are wondering if this is going to be a long list of rides in planes, trains, and automobiles – why yes, it is. That’s the point. Much of Sean O’Keefe’s work day is spent on the move – yet he still needs to run the agency while he is running around.

Eventually the pilot came back and told us that we had a good shot of making it to Teterboro and we prepared for take off. Within a few minutes we were speeding down the runway. Then the plane literally jumped up off the ground. The angle and pace of our takeoff reminded me of the Twin Otters I flew aboard into and out of Devon Island these past two summers – with the exception that this Gulfstream really packed a wallop as it took off. Indeed, O’Keefe had left his Blackberry PDA and cell phone by his seat. As the plane took of both items shot back toward the back of the cabin. He managed to catch one of them in mid air. Standard fare from what I am told.

As I was soon to see, Sean O’Keefe is different than his predecessor in how he stays in contact with his staff. He can’t seem to go 10 minutes without checking his Blackberry for messages. The same behavior was exhibited by Glenn Mahone and Shiron Gaines, and as I would soon see, virtually everyone who traveled with us. At regular points during the trip you’d see everyone hunched over fiddling with their Blackberry – not unlike some kid playing with their portable Gameboy.

We climbed up to 27,000 feet in short order. It was quite obvious that there was nothing but bad weather ahead. As we came into Teterboro the clouds only broke at a thousand feet or so off of the deck. There was already a lot of snow on the ground. As soon as we were on the ground, Mahone called the New York Times to tell them that we’d do our best to get over to the editorial board meeting originally scheduled for 3:30 pm. As we navigated through some mercifully fast moving traffic it looked like we’d only be an hour or so behind schedule.

As was already the obvious working style, O’Keefe wasted little time on chatter and was soon on the phone with a member of Congress. The conversation ranged from the recent action by the Senate in support of the President’s space initiative to an upcoming announcement (that afternoon) about an agreement on developing space nuclear systems with the Navy. When that conversation was completed (after losing the connection once) O’Keefe, Glenn Mahone and Sharon Gaines all focused on their Blackberrys again and adjusted not just the day’s schedule but meetings for the coming week.

The Gray Lady

We arrived at the New York Times an hour late and made our way up to the room where the editorial board would meet. The paper has a long storied history which has led some to refer to it as “the Gray Lady”. The inside of the building is classic New York and harkens back to the great newspaper publishing days of the last century. A mix between Tudor and Romanesque revival, the building has thick walls, oak trim and the overall look of an old ivy league university library.

As we came in the people at the door were openly pleased to meet O’Keefe and several asked to shake his hand. In the elevator a man simply walked up to O’Keefe, expressed his support for NASA and enthusiasm for space exploration, spoke about a telescope he had just purchased for his autistic son, and then described a propulsion system he though could help NASA. Being the jaded inside the beltway type reporter that I am I was rather surprised to see these interactions with O’Keefe. I would see many more as the trip progressed.

The editorial board’s meeting room itself is furnished with heavy chairs made out of dark wood. The walls are covered with prints depicting New York life from a previous century. At the front of the room, two ponderous oil portraits from more than a century ago dominate the room. Picture some courtroom from an Old Perry Mason TV show. O’Keefe and Mahone sat across a large table from 3 members of the editorial board and one reporter.

Glenn Mahone turned on his omnipresent tape recorder, Philip Boffey, the Time’s Editorial Board Deputy Director made certain that the ground rules were clear and that the entire session was “on the record”, and the conversation began.

A long series of questions followed in the next two hours about various shuttle repair options and mission scenarios. The questions were clearly focused so as to allow the board to somehow find a ‘gotcha’ with regard to the Hubble Servicing mission. To their credit they certainly tried but O’Keefe wouldn’t budge an inch.

As the session came to an end O’Keefe made it very clear to the editorial board that he did not like the way they had treated NASA Chief Scientist John Grunsfeld in print. Specifically, O’Keefe took the board to task for suggesting that Grunsfeld had been coerced or somehow pressured into changing his own opinion regarding how the Hubble Servicing mission should be handled. O’Keefe bristled at the thought and said that the Times had questioned Grunsfeld’s integrity. Boffey replied twice, each time with a bit of dismissive sarcasm in his voice that he did not question Grunsfeld’s integrity – an opinion O’Keefe clearly did not share. To make himself clear, O’Keefe pressed again several times – just to make sure that the Times got his point.

The tone of the questions made it clear that the New York Times editorial board had long ago arrived at its decision about O’Keefe and the way he runs NASA. While the tone was, for the most part, quite civil, the questions were clearly designed to circle in and get a few quotes to hang on an editorial – one which will never have a person’s name appended to it as author – one that was probably already written.

This board sat in judgment of O’Keefe.

I should note that this is in sharp contrast to the uniformly excellent writing by the Times’ science reporters who continue to provide excellent coverage of NASA.

Once we were done, we headed back to the car. There had apparently been a minor scheduling glitch with the rental company and the car we took from the airport was not the one we were getting into now. The picture of efficiency (and a no-nonsense former Marine) Shiron had arranged for a second car, and moved all of our luggage and other stuff into the new car. We then negotiated New York traffic with the added hazard of a messy snowstorm. After 20 minutes or so we made it to the Plaza Hotel where we’d be spending a few hours.

Everyone’s Irish Tonight

We threw our things in our rooms and then came right back down stairs for the next event: Irish America Magazine’s Top 100 Irish Americans of the Year banquet. The date was March 16th. The next day was St. Patrick’s day – and the city’s huge parade. Despite the bad weather, these die-hard Irish Americans were not going to be deterred. If you do not know Sean O’Keefe you can imagine with a name like his that he comes from Irish stock. There can be no doubt whatsoever that he revels in his heritage – as was made abundantly clear tonight.

This was the second year in a row that O’Keefe was named one of the top six Irish Americans of the year. O’Keefe was not alone in being honored – Astronauts Catherine “Cady” Coleman and James Reilly were also among the one hundred honorees.

As we entered the overly ornate ballroom and wandered to our tables, a large multimedia presentation played over and over again on a big screen. Each of the 100 honorees was shown in alphabetical order. Only when I had been seated for a few minutes did I get to see the whole presentation from the start. Just as I thought I had actually seen every on of the hundred faces a dozen times one appeared that I hadn’t seen: Bill Clancey from NASA Ames Research Center. Bill was one of my office tent mates for several weeks on Devon Island – and he was pictured sitting in front of the Haughton Mars Project mess tent. What a surprise. What a small world.

The room was a veritable who’s who; AFL-CIO president John Sweeney (the night’s big honoree), Sen. Hillary Clinton, Soledad O’Brien from CNN and a long list of folks from every aspect of society. Interspersed with several stunning musical performances and the requisite Irish dancing were presentations by the night’s top honorees.

When O’Keefe spoke he sought to deflect the attention away from himself and onto the other NASA honorees noting their accomplishments and how they had served as inspirations. He also noted that the first flight of the space shuttle next year would be commanded by an Irish American, Eileen Collins.

O’Keefe closed his comments by quoting the words of another famous Irish-American, President John Kennedy, who spoke about space exploration on the day before his assassination. Kennedy said:“Frank O’Connor, the Irish writer, tells in one of his books how, as a boy, he and his friends would make their way across the countryside, and when they came to an orchard wall that seemed too high and too doubtful to try and too difficult to permit their voyage to continue, they took off their hats and tossed them over the wall–and then they had no choice but to follow them. This Nation has tossed its cap over the wall of space, and we have no choice but to follow it.”

By now it was 10:30 pm – but the work day was not over. O’Keefe and Mahone adjourned to the famous Oak Bar at ground level overlooking Central Park. Just as the New York times editorial board room was decorated with scenes of New York a century ago so is the Oak Bar. The Oak Bar features three large, somewhat impressionistic Everett Shinn murals – all recently resorted – which depict New York from a time long past.

NASA General Counsel Paul Pastorek joined us having just survived a commercial flight from New Orleans. While the conversation was more relaxed than that during the day, it was still work – and was punctuated by all three grabbing cell phones and or Blackberrys – until we finally left around midnight.

Early Start

With a 5:45 am departure from the hotel the next morning, none of us go much sleep. This is rather routine I was told. Given the large room bill I was paying (we did get a discount) the hourly rate to sleep those 4-5 hours was all that much harder to swallow – indeed it was what I’d expect to pay for a full night elsewhere.

Everyone made it down to the lobby on time. We piled into the car and headed back to the airport. The trip went without event. Despite the early hour, everyone was already fiddling with their Blackberry’s and schedules for the coming weeks were already under revision. When we arrived at the airport the pilot told us that deicing had just begun and that we were looking at least an hour’s delay. There was a fine icy drizzle overnight which had apparently frozen the entire outer surface of the plane such that the pilot couldn’t even get inside for a while.

Not wanting to waste any time, O’Keefe, always the energizer bunny, Glenn Mahone, Paul Pastorek, and Shiron Gaines all went into work mode even though it was not even 6:30 am. Blackberrys and cell phones were in constant use. Soon the plane was ready and we were off to Cleveland.

It was readily clear by now that the tight schedule O’Keefe keeps would not be possible if he were to fly commercially. Indeed, Paul Pastorek joked “we’re always trying to put ten pounds of potatoes in a five pound bag” when it comes to scheduling. There is also the luxury of being able to use cell phones and other electronic devices throughout nearly the entire flight.

Every now and then the clouds cleared enough to see that there was a lot of snow on the ground. Given the regular amount of heavy snow the area gets we weren’t worried that school would be closed that day in Lorain Ohio – the day’s big event.


We got into Hopkins International Airport in Cleveland just after 9:15 am. A large friendly contingent from NASA Glenn Research Center (GRC) was there to greet us. Many of them wore green. We would see a lot of green this day being that it was St. Patrick’s day and everyone’s boss was overtly Irish. We piled into a van and headed straight for the offices of the Cleveland Plain Dealer and arrived at 9:45 am.

The editorial Board began its session with O’Keefe in a far less ponderous fashion that had the session with the New York Times. The questions ranged from the NASA Shared Services Center, to Project Prometheus, to NASA’s budget. In contrast to the New York Times wherein the atmosphere was colored by various shades of confrontation, the mood at the Cleveland Plain Dealer was a complete contrast.

We all sat in a bright room in a circle, without a large table, either in sofas or comfortable chairs. The reporters asked questions, O’Keefe answered. Then they asked another question, and O’Keefe answered, and so on. The reporters were actually ‘reporting’. The questions were met with replies – some of which required clarification or follow up. The next day an article would appear that reflected the exchange accurately.

While the New York Time passed judgment upon NASA, the Cleveland Plain Dealer asked questions and recorded the replies. Refreshing.

Local Politics

Next stop was back at NASA GRC. This time it was a presentation to local and state politicians on GRC’s proposal for the NSSC – the NASA Shared Services Center. Upon arriving at the meeting site it became clear that the GRC was going to use very venue to make O’Keefe feel comfortable: you could not look anywhere without seeing something green – the food, place settings, lapel decorations – even the jelly beans.

In the room were several dozen folks from all parts of GRC, local representatives, Rep. Dennis Kucinich, Sen. George Voinovich, and Governor Robert Taft. The presentation began at 11:00 am and was short and to the point: the Cleveland community had aligned with GRC to propose a comprehensive plan to win the NSSC contract – and they were both proud and confident of their proposal.

The next stop was the Ohio Aerospace Institute (OAI) building located about 15 minutes away from NASA GRC. As we got off the bus we saw that hundreds of people had just finished lunch and were being herded into the auditorium. The event that followed was much the same as the one presented a few minutes before – with the exception that it was being presented to rank and file members of the NASA GRC workforce, local residents, and the media. This time Kucinich, Voinovich, and Taft got up to make some short comments. This was followed by a video and some comments by O’Keefe and a Q&A with local reporters.

Stealth Mode

I was doing my best to travel in stealth mode and be unobtrusive as O’Keefe went about his public tasks. This had worked OK until I got to NASA Glenn Research Center and people started to recognize me – even though I had said nothing to tip them off. While the attitude towards me as editor of NASA Watch had changed within the agency, I was still a bit apprehensive about how the folks at Glenn would receive me and whether it would affect the way they behaved (thus affecting the very thing I was trying to observe).

When Deputy Center Director Richard Christiansen (and later Center Director Julian Earles) shook my hand as I got off the plane and welcomed me by name, I knew that there would not be a problem. Folks were either pleased to meet me or oblivious to my presence. Otherwise, no one behaved differently in my presence. What a relief.

O’Keefe’s Toughest Audience

We left a few minutes behind schedule (at 1:00 pm) for Lorain Middle School in Lorain Ohio. The drive took us west, away from the metropolitan Cleveland area to the suburbs – and then beyond toward Lake Erie. As we pulled into Lorain something became very evident: there are economic problems in this community. Traveling down Main Street I could see that one out of every three store fronts was closed and/or vacant. Very few cars were parked on the street. Businesses that were open were in need of paint and seemed to be lacking in clientele.

From the outside, the school building looked like a thousand others in America. As we excited the bus we could hear the kids inside at some sort of general assembly or pep rally. Entering the hallway, several dozen teachers and local government representatives were all smiles and happy to see O’Keefe. They shook his hand as if he were some kind of famous person – much in the same way that ‘regular folks’ folks had done the previous day in New York and at the airport in New Jersey.

But this event had yet to even begin.

Lorain Middle School is one of a number of school selected by NASA to get some financial assistance and access to the wide range of educational materials as part of its Explorer School program. This visit is just one of dozens to be made by O’Keefe and other NASA personnel in the coming months.

We were all escorted back to a large room – the “Media Center – where the students had set up a variety of displays relating to space exploration. Astronaut Michael Good, who hails from nearby Parma, Ohio, was already there talking to some of the kids. He and O’Keefe proceeded to tour the various exhibits – all of which were staffed by enthusiastic, but somewhat star-struck kids who went through their presentations nicely. Among the exhibits, there was a rather nice looking Mars rover, a Mars base complete with greenhouse, and exhibit titled “stuffed animals in space”. At the far end of the room a was large NASA exhibit showing the history of the agency – and of space exploration.

There was also a table that I found most interesting: copies of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, LIFE magazine and other publications from July 1969. While waiting to go into the auditorium both and O’Keefe and Good swapped stories of where they were and what they were doing when Apollo 11 landed on the moon. Looking at these images now after more than three decades it is hard to remember when they depicted things that had happened days before instead of what they represent now – iconic snapshots of a time long ago and far away.

Note: The school has posted a number of photos from this event online.


Just before 2:00 pm word came that the kids were ready. A few minutes before I had stuck my head into the room to get some photos and see what the atmosphere was like. The place was jammed to the rafters. Being a middle school and towards the end of the day the kids were clearly restless. Several tunes from the school’s jazz band kept them occupied as final preparations were made for the day’s event.

I followed directly behind O’Keefe and Good with my video camera rolling so as to try and record what it was like to be welcomed by the kids. As soon as the curtains parted and they walked out on stage the place erupted in applause.

After the introductions from local school officials, the program began. O’Keefe went though the standard litany of what you’d expect in such a venue – you need to focus on Math and science to prepare yourself for a career at NASA. He also placed his own life in context of the agency noting, that at age 48, he was only 2 years old when the agency was born and that an age similar to that of his audience he watched people land on the moon.

He then showed a stock 6 minute presentation NASA has been using in a variety of locations which mixes a flurry of futuristic animations with the President’s speech at NASA Headquarters in January. [Quicktime] [Windows Media Player] I had seen this before so I was more or less waiting for it to be over in order for the program to begin.

As the video ended something rather unexpected happened. The kids applauded – and not just polite applause either. That really caught me off guard – to see kids applauding a video tape. As I was to learn later from O’Keefe this is a common reaction at other schools as well.

Next up was astronaut Mike Good. While he was clearly making his first public presentation of this sort – referring to a script in so doing – he got the hang of things quickly and soon had the kids in the palm of his hand. Good spoke of the things that had motivated him as a kid and how that transformed into his desire to become an astronaut.

It has been a common sight for decades to see astronauts make public appearances such as this. Deputy Administrator Fred Gregory must have the record with over 3,000 such events – he told me recently that he has lost count now. Every astronaut has his or her own unique story – sometimes the bug bites you as a kid – sometimes it takes longer.

After the NASA presentations, a number of awards were given to the local faculty and school board for their participation in the day’s events- and the school’s participation in the Explorer School program. The applause for the woman who spearheaded the Explorer school activity was positively deafening.

This event really left an impression on me. As we filtered out of the school and headed back into Cleveland for the next events, I got to thinking about what I had just seen.

The raw enthusiasm for what NASA represents to these kids – especially given that this area is, as described by one local representative, ‘economically depressed” is though provoking. I had not seen such unfiltered interest in a very long time. Being immersed in Washington, DC media and politics as they relate to space, I guess I shouldn’t be at all surprised at the lack of such wonderment at what might lie ahead.

These kids did not know anything about the politics that swirl around the President’s space initiative, the Hubble complaints, or anything of the like. Space is still ‘cool’ and space is where they want to be. They don’t know any better than to find the prospect of a new program of space exploration to be exciting- and enticing.

Perhaps as these school visits become more common the word will start to filter back to Congress. So much of the politics swirls around the here and now. The decisions may result in benefits to one state or one company now – but the end result won’t be fully realized until the years when these kids are in college and entering the work force. This is not to say that the powers that be in Washington, DC don’t deserve the attention they are given – but I am glad to see that NASA is paying some attention to the ultimate beneficiaries “as only NASA can.”

St. Patrick’s Day – Cleveland Style

Our next stop was the Cleveland City Club in downtown Cleveland. By now one out of every two pedestrians was wearing something green. As we entered the lobby a group of celebrants was already well into the day’s events. Downstairs a large, rowdy St. Patrick’s day event – the “after the Parade Party” sponsored by the Ancient Order of Hibernians was underway for local families. After making the rounds inside we headed off to Morton’s – a local steakhouse.

Morton’s was filled to the gills. You could hardly move. Of all the places to celebrate St. Patrick’s day in Cleveland this was apparently the place to be. The honored guest was Michael O’Kennedy, a retired Irish politician visiting the U.S. from the Republic of Ireland. A series of local politicians jumped upon the stage to make presentations in O’Kennedy’s honor. Eventually it was O’Keefe’s turn.

As he presented O’Kennedy with the plaque, something unusual happened – O’Kennedy pulled O’Keefe aside to talk about space exploration. None of the previous presenters had a chat with O’Kennedy. As O’Keefe told me later “O’Kennedy was amazed I was there and quite taken, as so was I of him.”

This was something that I had now seen many times on this trip. As soon as you get outside of the NASA world, and outside of Washington DC the reaction of folks to O’Keefe – and NASA is surprising. I did not see a single person ever say a negative thing about what NASA does. This is, of course, in sharp contrast to what O’Keefe hears on a daily basis when he is in Washington or working issues related to the agency. There is no cynicism, questioning of motives, or betting on his odds of success or failure. People express pride in what their space agency does and it reflects back clearly on O’Keefe.

While it was certainly fun to visit Morton’s, there was obviously an ulterior motive lurking somewhere to O’Keefe’s presence: to impress on the City Council members (in attendance) and Cleveland’s mayor that NASA is indeed interested in being a big part of their community and the agency wants to be partners with the business crowd. This is a marked change in direction (now spearheaded by Center Director Julian Earles) from the previous stance taken by Glenn Research Center vis-à-vis the world outside its gate. Looking back at the way that the NSSC presentation was presented earlier today I’d say that they at least seem to have found away to build their local team rather well.

After getting our fill of Irish food we headed back to the airport for the ride home. Wheels up was at just after 7:00 pm with an ETA just before 8:00 pm in Washington. By now our number had grown to twelve. As such the plane was crammed full with a dozen people who’d had their fill of cabbage and corned beef.

Milking Every Opportunity

Looking back at the trip, it was hard to imagine that we had crammed all that we had managed to get in. We had no breakfast, lunch was inhaled on a bus, and I don’t think we had more than 30 seconds where we weren’t going somewhere or doing something. The center of the activity is O’Keefe. He does this not in the imperial, distant manner that his predecessor did, but rather as part of a team. While he is clearly the boss, no one acts as if they are subservient in any way. They’re too busy.

Each time O’Keefe appeared in public whether it was with one person or a thousand – or made a presentation, it was NASA he focused on. When he was given the award at the Irish-American dinner he managed to get in a rather detailed plug for the agency and what it des while others simply stood there, basked in a moment’s recognition, and then left the stage. I was rather surprised that the audience – clearly of a Democratic/organized labor persuasion – allowed a Republican appointee to make what amounted to a sales pitch for the President’s space initiative. But they did – and then they applauded warmly.

The Little Gizmo That Runs NASA

As we flew home O’Keefe, Mahone, Pastorek et al once again focused on their Blackberrys. Earlier in the trip I asked O’Keefe if his preference for the device had any effect on the growing prevalence – not only among his immediate staff- but among others at NASA HQ. He didn’t seem to think there was any. Glenn Mahone disagreed to an extent. During the day, as more people joined our traveling entourage from HQ I asked them why they had a Blackberry. The answer was usually along the lines of “my boss made me get it” and then an admission “now I can’t live without it.”

As I understand the story, Paul Pastorek was the initiator behind getting the Blackberrys. O’Keefe was already known to be an email junkie. This just took him to the next level. The standard model used by NASA is the RIM 957. When I asked if they all considered upgrading to more capable service plans – or fancier models – which would allow web surfing, I was told that this would make the devices even more addictive than they already are.

O’Keefe and his staff use these devices to the extent of their capabilities. While some folks at NASA had PDAs to store addresses and the like these devices have become an extension of their owner. Pastorek told me that he often uses the device to email himself so that he can remember what action items O’Keefe has given him. During the course of the trip I often saw one person hand their Blackberry to someone else to allow them to read something – or tell someone three feet away that they were going to forward something to them.

The previous information management fad at NASA had been the bulky Franklin planners. These things were coming into vogue as I left the agency a decade ago so I was spared the indoctrination. While they are not gone they are in the decline. I have lost track at how often I have seen someone dutifully open one of the behemoths and write something down in itty bitty letters in just the right place in some form. Problem is – that information just sat there unless manually copied and sent elsewhere.

These Blackberrys skip that step – they also allow O’Keefe to flatten a lot of the day to day management into a rather flat hierarchy. When I asked them about this I got a bit f a puzzled. O’Keefe has operated in this fashion since arrived – so the process seems natural.

While I don’t want to burden the poor man with more email than he already gets, suffice it to say O’Keefe doesn’t shy away from email exchanges at all levels – within and outside the agency. While the limitations of typing with your thumbs while moving in a car or plane tends to limit the extent of his replies, he readily engages all comers. A marked departure from his predecessor who never used email and shunned such interaction with those beneath him. There is a certain deflation of distance between people and O’Keefe that accompanies such an approach.


As I mentioned in the beginning I am not unfamiliar with traveling around with someone with a job like Sean O’Keefe’s. As such I had to force myself to be in record mode so as to capture details which I might otherwise ignore.

With the exception of the ivory tower gnomes at the New York Times everywhere we went outside of Washington, NASA – in the form of its Administrator- was greeted with an enthusiasm and excitement that I suspect few in Washington have ever seen. NASA will be doing more of these events – with a substantial portion of the astronaut corps, senior NASA HQ management and Center Directors already fanning out across the U.S. so as to reconnect the agency with the real world beyond the beltway.

Cynic that I am, I was impressed. While the ostensible reason why NASA is doing this outreach is to allow the public to gain a better understanding of the agency, a number of folks within the agency are finding themselves in towns and venues they probably haven’t experienced in a very long times. We are talking about small towns with economic problems – and schools without champion teams or large teaching hospitals.

O’Keefe chuckled several times about the reaction that some of his senior management had to their destinations. They all seem to be growing into the task – and in the process they are getting feedback about what they do in a mode they probably never get. This will also be a new experience for many in the astronaut corps. If Mike Good is an example of how one fares on one’s first appearance, I think they will all do just fine. Good was simply being himself and that connected immediately with the kids.

Whether this exercise will result in a more accurate appreciation for what NASA does – and wants to do among the taxpaying public and their children remains to be seen. From the small slice I saw I’d say that the chances are very good. Whether politicians in Washington hear of this and act in response is another. It is so easy to listen to the lobbyist’s loud lullabies. It takes much more effort to listen for the roaring whisper that comes from an engaged and excited electorate.

Most importantly, it will be interesting to see whether or not the agency fully takes advantage of this opportunity to reconnect with the public so as to reset its world view and recharge its batteries.

Based on the raw, unfiltered reaction I saw from a thousand children in a town where the economy is in the dumps and there is not a lot to look ahead to, if NASA – and Congress don’t hear their message, it is because they aren’t listening.

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.