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Former NASA chief was a passenger in plane crash

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Former NASA chief aboard downed plane
  • NEW: Former astronaut calls O'Keefe "one of the best NASA administrators we've ever had"
  • The former head of NASA, Sean O'Keefe, was a passenger on the plane that crashed
  • O'Keefe currently serves as the CEO of EADS North America
  • O'Keefe worked in a variety of government and higher education posts

(CNN) -- Former NASA chief Sean O'Keefe was a passenger on the plane that crashed in Alaska, according to EADS North America, where he is now the chief executive officer. His condition was not known.

"Sean O'Keefe, EADS North America's CEO, was a passenger on a private aircraft that crashed in Alaska last night. Local authorities are reporting that there are survivors and a rescue operation is underway. No other details are available at this time," said Guy Hicks, EADS North America spokesman, on Tuesday.

O'Keefe had a long career in the government and higher education, most recently serving as NASA administrator from December 2001 until his resignation in February 2005.

A former astronaut called O'Keefe a "natural leader" and said he knew how to talk to "the troops."

"I first met Sean when I was in training for the International Space Station mission, just outside of Moscow," Leroy Chiao told CNN's Ali Velshi. "Sean stuck his head in the hatch, stuck his hand out and said, 'Hi, I'm Sean O'Keefe.'"

Later that day, at a barbecue, O'Keefe "just sat around and talked with us and it really impressed me. ... He enjoys talking with the troops."

Chiao said O'Keefe came to NASA at a very difficult time. "Not long after he started," Chiao said, "we had the Columbia tragedy. He got us through that."

The former astronaut remembered that O'Keefe got some criticism for "not being a technical guy," but "Sean was one of the best NASA administrators we've ever had."

Before heading NASA, O'Keefe served for 11 months as deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, overseeing the preparation, management and administration of the federal budget, according to his biography on NASA's website.

From 1996-2001, O'Keefe was the Louis A. Bantle Professor of Business and Government Policy, an endowed chair at the Syracuse University Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He also served as the director of National Security Studies, a partnership program for senior military and civilian officials held by Syracuse University and Johns Hopkins University, the NASA website said.

He was previously a business administration professor and an assistant to the senior vice president for research and dean of the Graduate School at the Pennsylvania State University.

Before that he had been appointed secretary of the Navy in 1992 and had served in various Pentagon and congressional posts, according to NASA.

He earned his bachelor's degree in 1977 from Loyola University in New Orleans, Louisiana, and his master's degree in public administration in 1978 from The Maxwell School.

He and his wife have three children, the NASA website said.