Spacelift Washington: The Old Academic in His Element

By frank_sietzen
May 1, 2002
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Spacelift Washington

Spacelift Washington Archive

WASHINGTON- In the gathering twilight of an urban campus, an old former professor came home to a setting he clearly loved Wednesday, speaking in the soft patois of a man who was obviously -and most likely always – a teacher at heart. That former prof had also been (in earlier lives) a Senate staffer, a Pentagon official, a Cabinet secretary, and an analyst.

But the one thing that stirred his heart, if body language and cadence was any indication of where a person’s center lies, was the prospect of teaching students. On this occasion the task was to further define his “vision” of how to lead a transformation of a bureaucracy.

Of course, the old academic wasn’t about to quit his day job-given to him, in fact, in a short meeting with the President of the United States (“Thanks for taking the job”, said the President).

Sean O’Keefe, 10th Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, spoke at the end of the day Wednesday at George Washington University in Washington, DC. And while O’Keefe didn’t much vary from his earlier policy address, also at an academic setting (his alma mater of Syracuse University and place of his former tenured professorship), he did give glimpses of his management plan for his own version of reinventing the troubled space agency.

Leadership secrets of … Paul O’Neil?

O’Keefe described the central tenets of leadership of an organization given to him by an old friend, Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neil (“We served on many boards together”).

There were three tenets, he said:

  1. Create a culture promotive of professional respect

  2. Provide the resources to allow people to carry out their jobs

  3. Assure that there are consequences for performance, both positive and negative-why do we care that this is being done?

All management objectives, O’Keefe said, should be designed to accomplish these three tasks.

At NASA, it was central to articulate the strategy of what “you seek to do”, he explained to the audience of about 150 listeners. “NASA embodies the hopes, fondness, of most of the American people, indeed the world,” O’Keefe predicted. Some articulation of vision (“As we said during the first Bush administration, that vision thing”) is attached to expectations. But his vision was shaped and contained by, in essence O’Keefe said, the art of the possible. “For to articulate fantasies is worse than not to do anything.

“Reality is something that needs to be reconciled.” He recalled that when president John F. Kennedy proposed the lunar landing goal, “it wasn’t known how to get there, but that was what the vision was.”

And he predicted that he would “not just try to be practical at NASA, that’s not enough. We have to enable the opportunity for exploration and discovery.”

He chafed at the limits of technology on human space exploration, and said that lifting these technological barriers -not a destination -would be his objective at the space agency. “Exploration in many different ways.” A major effort of his administration would be to “focus on motivating the next generation of human spaceflight explorers” and to help stop the “migration from math and science”.

His NASA, O’Keefe predicted, would shun any effort at “faster, better, cheaper” and would instead focus on doing those things that only NASA can do, or otherwise would not be done at all. “Enabling technologies are what we need to focus on, not destinations. That’s more challenging than Ôfaster, better, cheaper”. “We’ll take the things available around this exotic agency and make them available to the educational community.”

It had been a long day for O’Keefe, which began in the Senate defending his FY2003 budget submission (“You’ve hit the nail on the head, Senator. ..Senator Bond, you’ve got that exactly right…”) As he testified, four U.S. Senators-Graham and Nelson of Florida, Breaux and Landrieu of Louisiana, were sending Senate appropriators a letter calling for increases to NASA’s FY03 top line numbers, a move that bodes well for increases to Shuttle upgrades, space science, and other accounts.
It had been a long day for the old academic.

In fact, it was, according to John Logsdon, the 120th day of the O’Keefe administration – the point at which O’Keefe is now free to start making major personnel changes.