18 December 2001
- General (Good)
Sean O’Keefe to Head NASA
Charting new waters
by Patrick Collins
President Bush has chosen Sean O'Keefe to be the next Nasa administrator; he’s expected to start formally early in the new year after the final Senate ratification. O’Keefe is currently Deputy Director of the US government's Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Earlier in 2001 he was responsible for denying Nasa the extra $5 billion that it requested (on top of a long series of earlier budget over-runs) toward the International Space Station ( ISS). A professional public sector manager, O’Keefe has said of the project “...technical excellence at any cost is not an acceptable approach....”

Readers should remember that, when first proposed in the early 1980s, the space station was to be a facility for all scientific researchers, to cost $8 billion, and to start operation in 1992. Having reached something like $50 billion to date (though the accounts are so opaque that no one really knows how much it has cost), the great majority of science research organisations no longer support it. Consequently it has become a facility for the space agencies themselves, which is of course entirely different from the original purpose for which it received government approval.

In testimony before the House Science Committee, which decides Nasa’s budget, O’Keefe stated that “Managing the [ ISS] within cost and schedule must be elevated in importance - particularly within the culture of Nasa's human space flight activities - to be on a par with technical excellence....” This is true of all activities: Many ideas are of some potential value, but whether they are worth realising or not depends on their cost relative to their benefits. As such, Sean O'Keefe is a true friend of the US taxpayer; he will at least move in the direction of reducing spending on activities that are not economically justifiable.

During his testimony O’Keefe showed the following bar-chart.

This shows some astounding facts that Nasa supporters like to keep hidden. Most importantly, the $14 billion plus Nasa receives every year is twice as much as the research funding of both the US National Science Foundation and the US National Institutes of Health combined! These two organisations are responsible for the majority of science research in the United States, including many medical advances and many of the Nobel Prizes that American scientists win.

For twice that investment you might think that Nasa would create some value for taxpayers. But if you ask what benefits US taxpayers get in exchange for giving Nasa such massive support, beyond a few photographs, it’s very hard to say.

The November 24 issue of The Economist magazine revealed that Congressman Dave Weldon (Florida) complained about O’Keefe, "I mean, why put that in that graph like that?" This is extremely revealing: The idea of telling the US public the true facts and helping them to make an economically sound decision is out the window. Weldon is there to get a big budget for Nasa and friends, and how the money is spent is basically irrelevant. Furthermore he believes that the Nasa administrator's job is to do the same. “Ours not to reason why. Ours but to spend and lie” perhaps? Speeches about “Opening the new frontier of space to the human race” are just hot air designed to fool the masses into shelling out their taxes.

But suppose Weldon was right; suppose he and his colleagues and the Nasa administrator should just feather their own nests? But then whose job is it to check the value of what Nasa does? Why, the general public, of course! But they’re being snowed by the sycophantic press, most of whom who do little more than reprint the self-serving nonsense in Nasa press releases about their work being so "advanced" and difficult that no amount of money is enough. And so not one in a hundred of the general public knows that space tourism is readily possible.

Well, luckily for the US taxpayer, Sean O’Keefe believes that it’s his job to make sure that US taxpayers get value for the vast amount of money that Nasa uses. And that‘s a very good thing, since the truth is that economical passenger space travel could be developed for far less than a single year of Nasa’s budget.

Having said that, it’s not yet clear what O’Keefe plans for Nasa beyond getting its finances under control. But if he favours the idea of restructuring Nasa – perhaps to return to the original NACA structure whereby its primary objective will be to aid the development of a commercial space travel industry as Space Future recommends. If so, he has the political authority to bring it about, since he’s very close to the Vice-President and so to the President. He would be able to steamroller opposition from the heads of Nasa centres and their political supporters, even closing or privatising them if he considers that desirable.

O’Keefe’s appointment at least clarifies that his predecessor was the last ‘dinosaur’ to head Nasa, whose ‘vision’ was limited to protecting Nasa and its clients, at any cost, from US taxpayers. At best O’Keefe could transform the space industry by allocating serious funds to aid the private sector in starting passenger space travel. And if it turned out that O’Keefe does not have a particular vision of the need for a government monopoly agency deciding what’s best for the US public in space, then that’s okay too: Nasa will get out of the way of the companies that are trying to open space to the public. It’s certainly hard to imagine how O’Keefe could possibly have a worse effect than his predecessor, who delayed space tourism by the full nine years of his time as Nasa administrator while spending over $100 billion of taxpayers’ money.
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Patrick Collins 18 December 2001
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