NASA head steps down

Sean O'Keefe, the embattled head of the U.S. space agency, resigns.
By | Published: December 14, 2004 | Last updated on May 18, 2023
December 14, 2004
Sean O’Keefe, NASA Administrator since December 2001, has resigned to become chancellor at Louisiana State University. No replacement has been named.
Sean O'Keefe
Sean O’Keefe spent three years as NASA Administrator. He will leave the position to become chancellor of Louisiana State University’s main campus in Baton Rouge.
O’Keefe presided over NASA during some tough times. On February 1, 2003, the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated upon reentry. The resulting investigation, which took 7 months, culminated in a report released October 28, 2003. The report described NASA as a bureaucracy plagued by insufficient safety standards. The report specifically mentioned “NASA’s organizational culture” and a lack of funds as significant factors in the disaster.

O’Keefe also was the one to announce the Hubble Space Telescope would not be serviced by a space-shuttle mission. Citing a high risk factor for the astronauts, O’Keefe said the space shuttle would be used only to travel to the International Space Station (ISS). If NASA became aware of problems with the shuttle while it was docked with the ISS, he said, astronauts could survive at least 2 months there while a rescue mission was planned. Unfortunately, the astronauts would not be able to service Hubble from the ISS because the telescope lies in a different orbit.

O'Keefe celebrates
After Spirit successfully landed on Mars, NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe celebrates with Steve Squyres, principal investigator for the science instruments on both rovers.
NASA / Bill Ingalls
Since June 2003, NASA has been investigating the possibility of using a robotic spacecraft to service Hubble. Such a mission would not put the lives of astronauts in jeopardy. On the negative side, a robotic mission would cost at least as much as sending astronauts, and it may not be ready in time to save Hubble.

On December 8, however, a study by the National Academies’ National Research Council recommended that NASA use astronauts to service Hubble. The panel cited a “high likelihood of success” for the servicing mission, which would be the fifth for the space telescope. Panel members also said in their 135-page report that the intrinsic value of a serviced Hubble justifies the risk. O’Keefe opposed the panel’s findings.

O’Keefe decided to leave NASA for personal reasons. He is a Louisiana native, and his eldest daughter will head to college soon. No time frame for his departure has been announced.