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NASA's O'Keefe: 'Administration's enthusiasm ... unabated'

NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
Space Exploration
- Spend $12 billion on new space exploration plan over next five years. $1bn will be new money, the rest reallocated from existing NASA programs.
- Retire shuttle program by 2010
- Develop new manned exploration vehicle
- Launch manned mission to moon between 2015 and 2020
- Build permanent lunar base as "stepping stone" for more ambitious missions
- Complete commitments to International Space Station by 2010
Source: White House

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- NASA is implementing President Bush's Vision for Space Exploration issued this January, which directs the space agency to retire the shuttle program by 2010, develop a new manned exploration vehicle, develop a manned lunar program and base around 2020, and prepare to send humans to Mars.

NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe discussed the challenges facing NASA, its strengths and weaknesses and its future course, with CNN space correspondent Miles O'Brien.

O'BRIEN: When you talk about transformation, NASA is, like any bureaucracy, big on organization. Could you lay out the big points of what you plan to do?

O'KEEFE: The commission observed a very common observation about NASA, and that is that we aren't terribly friendly here towards entrepreneurs [and] innovators. We need to make ourselves a lot more accessible. On behalf of the public, we want to encourage that kind of spirit to permeate not only what we do every day in this agency but also what others do.

O'BRIEN: (Burt Rutan flew the first human into space aboard a private spacecraft in the Mojave Desert). Is what he accomplished there encouraging people like that? Is there a NASA role in what we saw unfold?

O'KEEFE: There's certainly a public role in encouraging that kind of risk-taking that is encouraging that kind of entrepreneurial spirit.

Indeed what was accomplished in the Mojave Desert that Rutan and Paul Allen managed to put together is a remarkable achievement. It's a great, great success and it's a triumph of humankind over all the limitations that we have lived with throughout the course of our civilization.

O'BRIEN: Are there people that work in NASA, perhaps yourself included, that look at what Rutan pulled off for $20 million and say "Gosh I wish we could do that?"

O'KEEFE: Well there's no question that there are a lot fewer limitations on what you can do with private financing. And that's to be understood. The public condition is that you have to be a lot more accountable. You've got to be absolutely traceable in terms of the things you're engaged in.

Nonetheless, we need to adopt very similar kinds of approaches to figure out how we can, on behalf of the public, [meet the] technical challenges we approach every day and find and invite new answers to old problems or new answers to new problems.

O'BRIEN: It was that entrepreneurial spirit that got this agency to the moon and back safely. Somewhere along the way, I think you would agree, that spirit got lost somehow. How do you get that back?

O'KEEFE: Well, I don't know if it's been lost ... You look at some of the very best examples of how we've conquered limitations and technical limits, and it typically is because we encouraged somebody with an idea that wasn't considered to be a conventional, or traditional, or accepted way of dealing with a problem.

And that's true in all walks of life. That's what we were founded to do in the first place. That's what's inherently the spirit of this agency throughout and it's just a matter of encouraging it.

We didn't lose it. It's just a matter of consistently reminding ourselves that's what brought us to the heights we've been [at] literally and that we can go beyond that as well if we continue to emphasize that characteristic.

O'BRIEN: How does [contracting launch responsibilities] differ from how you've been doing business historically? How is it more entrepreneurial?

O'KEEFE: This is more a case of asking for services for the complete operations of cargo capacity [or] re-supply capabilities to station and elsewhere in the immediate space of vicinity of low Earth orbit.

The other approach that the commission looked at is alternative management models to run all 10 centers we have around the country.

The Jet Propulsion Lab, that managed the Mars Expedition Rovers and did some extraordinary things, is run by a university on behalf of the government. As a consequence, there's a lot of entrepreneurial attitude there, a lot of flexibility in the way that's managed that the commission has suggested we look at as a model for other centers in how we do business.

That may or may not fit. Who knows?

O'BRIEN: What was your overall impression of the Aldridge report? Did they hit the nail on the head?

O'KEEFE: I think they did a pretty good job. We asked for -- and what the president commissioned them to do -- was to examine the exploration vision that he articulated back in January.

And what they came back with was a pretty tight -- roughly a dozen different ideas -- on how those recommendations can really focus our agenda. And I think in the general proposition they hit it pretty well.

O'BRIEN: Is NASA too hamstrung by those restraints to do something as bold as returning to the moon and going to Mars?

O'KEEFE: I don't think so at all. I think it is the entrepreneurial spirit, the general attitude of innovation, the drive and the enthusiasm to conquer technical limitations that you will find in this agency that you will rarely see among other groupings of human beings anywhere.

The attitude is right here, the talent is right here, the capability is right here... The president had confidence that we have the wherewithal to carry [the Vision for Space Exploration] out. We're going to take that confidence to its extent and go fulfill his direction. I think it's a worthy goal.

O'BRIEN: The fact that the president has been silent all this time could be interpreted as speaking volumes about his commitment to the vision.

O'KEEFE: No, not at all. I think the administration's enthusiasm for continuing down this road ... has been unabated. I think the president always focuses on the policy objectives he has in mind. He was pretty exhaustive and thorough in his commentary about what he wanted us to do and we're going to take that as firm direction.

O'BRIEN: Aldridge talks about NASA being an Apollo era organization. Based on what you've talked about, the Apollo model doesn't work anymore, does it?

O'KEEFE: I think the reference to that era is sometimes a flawed one. There's no question a lot of the facilities -- the buildings that we have to today -- were built during that period of time.

Does that mean it's an Apollo era infrastructure? No. It's been recreated, remade, remodeled, refurbished, refocused several times in the course of that 35-40 years since the end of that period of time. There was a reorganization in this agency roughly every nine to 12 months during that period of time

Technology has advanced a whole lot more than the ones they used in the 1960s. There is no reason to reach back to that same period of time and duplicate that same technology. None. As a matter of fact, it's not a smart idea at all.

O'BRIEN: Can you give people a sense of what you're all about in this first step?

O'KEEFE: We'll try to be simple about it, straightforward, and focus on the aeronautics, the science, on space operations, on exploration, and the systems that you need in order to carry that out.

Those are four mission areas, four things that very much define what we do. They're discrete functions in some ways but there's an awful lot of compatibility between all four of them. We're going to concentrate on those objectives as ways to organize all the boxes that transform the focus of the agency.

O'BRIEN: Can you give me an idea of the kind of program that will be less emphasized?

O'KEEFE: The challenges of power generation and propulsion and human endurance challenges are the constant challenge. We don't have an in-space propulsion capacity right now, none.

Same as power generation capabilities. We don't generate power much at all, other than through solar arrays. we've been using that same technology for 25-30 years.

There are a lot of aeronautics, aerospace technologies, things we use on aircraft everyday that if you reapply them can produce a whole lot more fire and light, if you will, to get you anywhere. That's going to be a big breakthrough.

There is a whole range of things we do in the areas of human endurance physiological research, physical research.

It's a refocusing of the same kind of capabilities that you have towards those kinds off objectives.

O'BRIEN: Is this going to be a leaner, meaner NASA?

O'KEEFE: It's certainly has been a lot more focused one. I would like to think it's going to be leaner. It certainly doesn't need to be mean. Its needs to be inviting, and one that is a lot less insular, a lot more solicitous of different ideas and new ways of conquering old problems.

These three limitations that we talked about are the same ones we've been living with for a long, long time. And we haven't found the breakthrough for them yet. And so conquering those can require a different way of looking at them.

O'BRIEN: Are you more optimistic that NASA can pull this off or are you more sobered by the task at hand?

O'KEEFE: I'm really optimistic that we can pull this off. There is no question. It is a very daunting task, it's a big one. And the strategy that he has directed us to proceed with is no easy task.

That said, it's the kind of stuff we do. It's what made this agency great. And it's what made the breakthroughs and capabilities we've achieved in the last 45 years possible, because we were challenged to goals that were beyond our reach at present. It motivates you to think how do you achieve them, how do you accomplish them. So I'm really optimistic. No doubt about it. But I'm also mindful that it's not going to be a cakewalk.

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