Sean O’Keefe: 9 Questions (Part 3)

By Keith Cowing
January 30, 2003
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Sean O’Keefe: 9 Questions (Part 3)
Sean O'Keefe

Editor’s note: Several weeks ago I asked NASA Adminstrator Sean O’Keefe if he’d be willing to answer some questions. The occasion was his first anniversary on the job. He agreed to do so.

In phrasing these questions, I sought to put aside those topics which had already been asked multiple times (Space Station Costs, etc.) and focus on issues that have been raised by NASA Watch readers (in one way or another) over the past year. The questions are presented below exactly as I put them to O’Keefe. With the exception of a sanity check by NASA Deputy Administrator Fred Gregory, Sean O’Keefe answered these questions by himself without circulating the text around official internal NASA channels. As such, what you see below is 100% Sean O’Keefe.

Keith Cowing, Editor

NASA Watch and SpaceRef

  • Part 1: The “Vision” thing; “OneNASA”; and “Freedom to Manage”
  • Part 2: people, cost credibility, and education

    7. Faster-Better-Cheaper (FBC): FBC was the managerial mantra NASA
    proclaimed as its new way of doing business. To be certain, this
    approach did result in an increase in the number of missions NASA was
    able to mount – and the rate at which these missions flew. However,
    FBC was ill-defined and often led to a corners being cut resulting in
    very public and embarrassing failures. Even as FBC seemed to be having
    a positive effect in one part of the agency, massive cost overruns
    within the agency’s flagship program, the ISS, continued unabated in a
    manner most contradictory to FBC i.e. it was neither faster, better, or

    Q: Is FBC still the guiding philosophy at NASA or has it been
    replaced with something else? If so, what? With regard to mission
    development, do you believe in a ‘one approach-fits-all’ management
    style or a mixture of approaches keyed to the scale and complexity of a
    program on a case-by-case basis?

    Sean O’Keefe: This management concept has general acceptance in many organizations dedicated to research and development. Technology forecasting is a very imprecise science –slightly better than alchemy — to predict the events of serendipity. By and large, benchmarking is hard to conduct because much of what we engage in at NASA either hasn’t been tried before or for which there is limited experience. As such, FBC is the equivalent of the “let a thousand flowers bloom” management philosophy to explore lots of different ways to meet objectives. That said, it is also very important to adopt a management approach that fits the precise point in the organization evolution. This is true for public organizations and private companies — one size doesn’t fit all. It’s imperative to pick the approach that advances the strategic objectives at that given point in time. As such, this not a commentary on the rectitude of the “faster-cheaper-better” management approach. Rather, this approach works when used at the right point in the technology or organization evolution. This may sound a bit like “pop management speak,” but it’s a management theory that’s been pretty well worked over.

    At this phase of NASA’s evolution, we have elected to focus, choose and select the programs and pursuits to advance our three mission objectives — to understand and protect the home planet; explore the universe and search for life; and inspire the next generation of explorers …. as only NASA can. These strategic goals argue for a concentrated approach to conquer technical obstacles to exploration and development by employing technology to overcome speed, safety, human endurance, and environmental diagnostic challenges, among others. By channeling our finite human talent and resources, we can overcome these targeted obstacles. History and time will tell whether we have chosen the right strategic focus for this point in our agency’s evolution — but for the moment, it sure seems like the right course.

    8. Space and Sean O’Keefe: as mentioned before, many in the space
    community were unsettled by the fact that you did not have an overt
    space pedigree. With the notable exception of James Webb, most who have
    led NASA have had a firm space background. While you have been
    forthright about your background – i.e. what you are and what you are
    not – that concern (justified or not) still remains.

    Q: After a year at the helm, sources close to you suggest that the
    “space bug” has indeed bitten you. However, the true extent of your
    ‘infection’ still remains a mystery to most. How has your exposure to
    the space culture affected the way you now run the agency? Are there
    things you do differently today (as opposed to when you first arrived)
    as a result of these experiences? On a personal note: you grew up with
    the space age in the 1960s and 70s. What are your earliest memories of
    space exploration – and how would you characterize your interest in
    space as a child?

    Sean O’Keefe: Responses to the previous questions should provide some glimpse as to the depth of my interest in what we do around this storied agency. No doubt, the morning line today and in whatever limited history is recorded will calibrate this period as a driven agenda to tackle recognized management challenges. Public service demands nothing less. And commitment to these ideals and objectives is nothing less than characteristic of service to this President and this Administration for the people we all serve. That’s the President’s mantra as it is for all of us privileged to serve for whatever period the public will permit. With unique application to NASA, I am part of the generation influenced by the seminal events we remember to the point of recalling where we were — the assassination of JFK, the lunar landing and the Challenger tragedy. Two of the three are directly linked to the NASA legacy and arguably JFK’s articulation of public service as a means to accomplish great goals establishes a generational link as well.

    9. Self-rating: Although you have only been NASA’s Administrator for a
    year, you have had enough time to assess the agency’s strengths and
    weaknesses, and to begin to leave your mark.

    Q: What is your greatest accomplishment thus far? How did you make it
    happen? What is your greatest frustration thus far? What are you going
    to do about it?

    Sean O’Keefe: This is best left answered by bored historians and case writers, underpaid and under loved journalists, you and your noble readership.

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