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Chief of NASA Gives Warning of Major Cuts

Space: Five days on the job, Sean O'Keefe says no program or center is immune from cutbacks or closures.

January 09, 2002|PETER PAE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The newly appointed chief of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has inherited a financial quagmire at the space agency, which is facing massive cost overruns that may even prevent it from sending a full crew to the space station to carry out scientific research.

With a reputation as a longtime Republican budget cutter and the first NASA administrator with a predominantly financial background, Sean O'Keefe has sparked outright fear among the scientists, academics and space policy analysts. They worry that the Bush administration is using the cost overruns to make wholesale cuts in the storied agency.

In his first comments to the media just days after taking office, O'Keefe said Tuesday that no program or center was immune from cuts or closures, providing the starkest warning yet of another major overhaul of the troubled agency.

"It's all on the table," said O'Keefe, a former deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget. "I don't have any preset solution of what the answer ought to be for any dimension of what we do here. It's an opportunity to think fresh about a variety of things."

His remarks are likely to intensify anxiety among NASA supporters who fear that cuts could dramatically diminish the nation's preeminent science and research institution, which had already undergone a decade of downsizing. The number of NASA employees has been cut by a third, from about 24,000 to 18,000.

O'Keefe was tapped by President Bush to replace Daniel S. Goldin, NASA's longtime director who retired after 10 years and three presidents, leaving a leaner but still troubled agency.

"NASA has been cost-cutting for years now, and the budget has not grown in the last decade," said Louis Freedman, executive director of the Planetary Society. "In terms of real dollars, the budget has shrunk, and the idea that the first priority is to shrink it more is scary."

Despite the fears, some analysts and former NASA employees privately wondered if O'Keefe could in fact clean up the financial mess at the space agency, long a repository for congressional pork-barrel projects that have prevented serious restructurings in the past.

The agency has major centers scattered across the nation that were set up in its 1960s heyday, but the infrastructure is far greater than it needs to be to carry out its current space and aeronautical research programs.

Instead of cutting back, as the Pentagon has done, NASA has been forced to keep the 10 major centers open and staffed. Goddard Space Center has 3,100 government employees. JPL in Pasadena, a contract facility, has 5,430.

Closing centers could be his greatest challenge and one that even Goldin shrewdly avoided broaching with Congress. Instead of shuttering centers, Goldin slashed staff. At Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, civilian personnel were slashed from 2,728 in 1993 to 1,850.

For his part, O'Keefe said he has "made no judgment or conclusion at this time" about closing down a center, although a White House-ordered review is expected to recommend closing at least one of the 10 facilities.

O'Keefe helped shaped the administration's policy toward NASA as deputy director of OMB, which under one of its reviews recommended slashing 1,000 civilian jobs from the agency's human spaceflight program.

"He's a bean counter," said Charles Vick, a senior analyst for space policy at the Federation of American Scientists. "To a large degree, you do end up with fears whether he is ultimately going to end up being a butcher of NASA."

Analysts said O'Keefe's appointment is the Bush administration's response to the stunning acknowledgment by NASA early last year that the construction of the international space station was running nearly $5 billion over budget.

In 1993, when the current design for the space station was adopted, NASA said the station would cost $17.4 billion to construct, or no more than $2.1 billion a year. But earlier this year, NASA acknowledged that the construction cost had grown to about $30 billion, or about $5 billion over the $25-billion spending cap imposed by Congress. The stunning report apparently angered administration officials who then became determined to seek out "someone to clean house."

In the morning meeting with the media at NASA headquarters Tuesday, O'Keefe said the agency needs to focus its attention on reining in the cost of the space station, including the possibility of scaling back the program as recommended by an independent panel.

The panel recommended that the agency cut back the number of shuttle flights to the orbiting post, stick to a three-member crew for the foreseeable future and reduce the number of modules that would accommodate a bigger crew to conduct scientific research. The recommendation has already come under sharp attack from international partners, such as Japan and Russia, who are eager to send their astronauts into space.

The recommendation, which O'Keefe said he supports, would mean that, for the next 18 months to two years, the three-member crew would mainly be flying to the station to maintain it.

O'Keefe said he wants to "assure" foreign partners that once "we have got the baseline program, and the fundamentals of the space station in place and in operation" that the agency would pursue expansion efforts based on "mutually agreed science and technology objectives."

"We got time to talk about how it is going to work," O'Keefe said, adding that he didn't want to assign any particular number to the crews that would eventually occupy the space station. Current plans call for a crew of seven.

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