Sean O’Keefe Testifies on NASA’s FY 2003 Budget Before the House Science Committee (Part 2)

By Keith Cowing
March 3, 2002
Filed under ,

Continued from Part 1

Rep. Bart Gordon (D-TN) was next to ask questions. Gordon had a point to make and he promptly did so, as is his habit. As he has done in other hearings, he does this by putting questions (with partial answers embedded within) to witnesses and then cuts off the witness as they try and respond.

“You talk about privatization of the Space Shuttle 2004” Gordon asked. “That means that this decision may need to be made this year. When will you report to Congress?” O’Keefe replied “the current ‘business case analysis’ should be completed by the time the current contract expires in September. Contract options may be exercised.”

Gordon shot back “when would employees expect to get layoff notices?” O’Keefe replied “I don’t know that this is going to happen.” Gordon replied “Isn’t this the logical assumption to make?” O’Keefe said “I am not prepared to say that.”

Gordon then said that Shuttle privatization would lead to “government employees that will no longer be government employees.” O’Keefe replied “You have already made a choice here.

“Let’s be honest about this” Gordon snapped back. The Strategic Resource Review results would be based on the FY 2002 budget. My staff were told this. We hear rumors that the SRR talks about closing one or more centers and shifting around civil servants.” O’Keefe said ” not to my knowledge. We have been delayed in meeting closure [on the SRR]. “When will it be released?” Gordon asked. O’Keefe replied “in a few months.”

Gordon said: “Not for this budget period? [This means that] we’ll have to go through the authorization process without knowing the recommendations.” He then shifted to Space Shuttle launch rates. “You say that you’ll do 4 launches. How will this be ‘aggressive’?” O’Keefe replied “Four is what is required for the ISS.” “How can you say this is ‘aggressive?’“, Gordon shot back. “There will be more than four’ O’Keefe replied.

Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee Chair Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) began his questions by saying that he shared many of the committee members’ frustration over the ISS. He agreed with Rep. Hall that it “should be a number one priority that the ISS is a success and that a working lab needs at least a 6 person crew. Of all NASA’s projects, this has to be a success or it will undermine the public’s support for other space programs.”

Rohrabacher then moved to defend O’Keefe from some earlier criticism noting that “those who put pressure on you now should admit that the problems you face were handed to this Administration and that money that no longer exists was not spent in the past year – but rather, [it was spent] previous to that. We cannot spend a lot of time talking about blame.” He went on to say “When we try to make the ISS a success, what we need to do is to offer alternatives. You can’t do something with nothing. If money is limited we need to find another source of revenue – something to cut. Sean O’Keefe is not the bad guy.”

Continuing on the topic of alternate funding source Rohrabacher said “I tried to find other sources myself. Some of them were good – some of them were not. We spent $1 billion on X-33. I tired to make this a success after the Vice President made the choice. I proved to be bad judgement. We need to minimize those risks. Mistakes in last Administration were made when risks were not minimized. They only chose the X-33 based on computer charts when there was a one-third working model [DC-X].

Rohrabacher concluded by saying “If we are going to be successful with the ISS we need to work with the Department of Defense in cooperation on new technologies”. O’Keefe agreed saying “we need to explore technologies together with national security establishment even if we end up with different end-use objectives.”

Rep. Gil Gutknecht (R-MN) brought this point up later urging O’Keefe. Gutknecht suggested that O’Keefe pay special attention to the amount of contracting that goes to smaller businesses noting that small business often have some of the most interesting new technology. O’Keefe replied that one third of NASA’s contact money ends up going to small businesses and that he “could not concur more” with what Gutknecht had suggested.

Questions from Rep. Bob Etheridge (D-NC) focused on education. Noting that a cut back in the number of crew – ergo the ability to do science on the ISS – could have the effect of reducing the number of opportunities for students to derive value from the ISS. Etheridge asked O’Keefe to explain why OMB recommended a cut in Space Grant Fellowships when Congress had decided to increase it by $5 million in FY 2002. O’Keefe did not have a firm answer and said that he’d get back to Etheridge.

Rep. George Nethercutt (R-WA) brought up an issue that weighs heavily on the mind of Congress: the potential of closing some of NASA’s field centers. Nethercutt noted that NASA has 10 of these Field Centers and asked if O’Keefe had given any thought to the potential excess capacity that such an infrastructure may represent. Specifically he asked if somethin like DoD’s BRAC (Base Realignment and Closure) effort might be considered as a way to save money. O’Keefe replied ” I have yet to be able to make a full examination of what NASA’s infrastructural requirements are. We need to make certain that overhead costs do not exceed R&D costs. In this case there is a ratio of 2/3 to 1/3 indirect : direct costs. That is a standard that is not way off the mark But looking at every element will require more work.”

Rep. Nick Lampson (D-TX) whose district includes JSC expressed thanks to O’Keefe for his recent trips to JSC. He then extended an invitation to President Bush to visit JSC as well noting that Bush “did not have a chance to visit [JSC] when he was governor.” Lampson noted that the 40th anniversary of President Kennedy’s famous speech at Rice University in Houston (wherein he set America on a path to the Moon) is coming up this Fall. “This would be a great time for him to be there to reissue a challenge to the people of America” Lampson suggested.

Lampson noted that OMB had directed NASA to delete the Hab module and the CRV. “You said that there was no final decision. Did OMB do an analysis of what the cost to program would be if CRV works was stopped and then restarted after 2 years?” O’Keefe replied that he did not know if such an analysis was done. Lampson replied that it would be helpful to know if OMB looked at the potential loss of expertise that could result from such a decision. He also said “we need to find out why there was no cost analysis.”

O’Keefe replied again saying that he “was not sure what analysis was done. The CRV is an important objective. We need to think about the circumstances where you’d need to remove the crew. ” O’Keefe then repeated his earlier comments about meeting with astronauts at JSC on this topic. “Their assertion of the number of circumstances where they would consider abandonment are so limited. Instead, at JSC, they are looking at the safe haven concept – the same thing that Navy nuclear submarines do with closed compartments.

O’Keefe then mentioned some analysis underway whereby a greater range of requirements for a crew transport vehicle were being revisited. He suggested that it might be possible to have a vehicle on Earth with a response time to launch that might allow a mixture of safe haven procedures and a launch from Earth that might meet some or all of the CRV requirements.

Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-MI) brought up the topic of increasing and decreasing budgets for Federal science agencies. “NIH’s budget has gone out of sight. NSF trudges on. NASA is the only one that is spending less [on research] than it was 10 years ago. We all know that a lot of this has to do with the cost of the ISD. My question is: how do you increase funding for science and return NASA to that part of its mission while building the ISS at the same time?”

O’Keefe replied “this is an issue we have to wrestle with all the time. The more you spend on capacity and the more it then takes to maintain that capacity – the more difficult it is to focus on the objectives of scientific research. We are trying to determine how to minimize the cost of overhead on the ISS. The ISS is a means to an end – it is infrastructure. How we organize scientific priorities properly is very critical. In my mind, the more we get efficiencies in operations the more we can dedicate to science.”

Elhers replied “We need to have as much thinking done about cost reduction as is put towards doing science. Cutting the crew in half has saved a lot of money – the question is, how much it has affected the science to be done on the ISS – something which was dubious already to some people.”

O’Keefe replied “this is one of the reasons why I am determined to implement the President’s management agenda. We are trying to work through [the issues of] capacity and infrastructure.”

Rep. John Larson (D-CT) brought up the issue of NASA aeronautics funding expressing a concern that “funding will remain flat. Some would say that R&D for aeronautics is corporate welfare.” Larson then expressed frustration and confusion about the White House actions regarding aeronautics. “First they issue a directive for an interagency working group – and then they withdraw the directive without any explanation.” O’Keefe replied that NASA’s aerospace technology request for FY 2003 is for $2.8 billion. This request is $300 million more than Congress appropriated a year ago.”

Larson then asked about the recent cancellation of the Pluto-Kuiper mission (a question he asked for Rep. Mark Udall R-CO who was not able to attend) “Why would NASA not continue funding on a project which has reduced its costs [at NASA’s request] by $200 million?” O’Keefe replied “there has been a lot of debate over what the cost is. I am not sure we know enough to comment on that. There is a larger question. Even though the National Academy of Science has looked at this and said ‘yes it is a really good idea’ the limitation is, we start a program that can get going no earlier than 2006. We need to launch then to use Jupiter to get to Pluto by 2016. The best you can get is a 3 to 4 week period of time [to observe Pluto]. The problem is not the mission. We do not have the technology to learn anything significant that we will be around to be informed by.” O’Keefe suggested “let’s set this aside and look at power and propulsion issues. If we conquer that then we can renew our commitment to Pluto – either to get there sooner – or to go into orbit. We need to conquer distance challenges.”


Sean O’Keefe is still enjoying a honeymoon period with respect to Congress. Compared to the reception his predecessor received when discussing very same issues – O’Keefe’s treatment was positively pleasant. While the democrats pressed more firmly on the issue of reduced research capacity that might result from limiting the crew of the ISS to 3 and Shuttle privatization, all members expressed a concern that NASA needs to address the larger issue of cost reliability and the effect this has on NASA’s ability to perform its responsibilities.

Several members made note of the fact that O’Keefe’s problems were not of his making – but rather an inheritance from the previous Administration. As such, O’Keefe still has some time to get his arms around these issues such that he can begin to recommend solutions. Time is not infinite in this regard. These issues will all too soon become identified with him and not with his predecessor.

O’Keefe committed repeatedly to completing a variety of cost and programmatic assessments such that he could answer some of the tough questions he was asked. O’Keefe’s predecessor loved to delay dealing with issues by dragging everyone through a seemingly endless series of reports, advisory committees, and reviews – refusing to comment in a substantive way until such time as all of these activities were complete. The net result was that many issues continued to mount without due attention to resolving them. NASA was never able to fully face its problems – nor was it free to fix them.

The result of this chronic procrastination is now sitting at the top of Sean O’Keefe’s in box.

Background Information

  • 6 February 2002: NASA’s Budget: Back to the Future – and to Basics, SpaceRef
  • 5 February 2002: House Staff Analysis of the FY03 R&D Budget: “Mostly Business-as-Usual but Watch Those Metrics!”
  • 4 February 2002: House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert Statement on Science Budget
  • 8 January 2002: Mr. O’Keefe Meets the Press, SpaceRef
  • 16 December 2001: The O’Keefe Era is About to Begin at NASA, SpaceRef

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