WASHINGTON – Sean O'Keefe (search), who has spent three tumultuous years running the nation's space program, is resigning, the White House said Monday.
O'Keefe, 48, is a leading candidate to become the $500,000-a-year chancellor of Louisiana State University's (search) main campus in Baton Rouge. He will meet Thursday with a search committee seeking to fill the job, the panel's chairman, Joel Tohline, said Sunday.
O'Keefe's tenure as administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (search) included the loss of the shuttle Columbia and its seven astronauts as well as budget battles and debates over the future of American space travel.
"Administrator O'Keefe has previously indicated to us that he is planning on leaving," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan. "The president believes he has done a great job over at NASA."
The spokesman said the White House was expecting a resignation letter from O'Keefe shortly. Another official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said O'Keefe was expected to submit the letter to President Bush by Tuesday.
NASA spokesman Bob Jacobs said, "When the administrator is prepared to announce his future plans, he will tell us and the public."
John Logsdon, director of George Washington University's space policy institute and a member of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (search), said the sense in the Washington space community, at least, was that O'Keefe had been eager to leave NASA.
"The general thought was that he was hoping for a different job in the second (Bush) administration, probably back in the national security field, kind of his natural home, and that hasn't happened," Logsdon said in a telephone interview. "But ... Sean has always said that he likes the academic life."
LSU system president and acting chancellor William Jenkins "has had his eye on O'Keefe for quite some time," said Charles Zewe, spokesman for the university's Board of Supervisors.
The Florida Today newspaper in Melbourne, Fla., reported Sunday that a White House team already is weighing five candidates and plans to announce O'Keefe's departure and pick a new NASA administrator by Thursday. It quoted an unidentified source familiar with the selection process.
Leading the president's list was said to be Air Force Lt. Gen. Ronald Kadish, who directed the effort to develop a system to shield the country from a missile attack, the newspaper said. It said the others under consideration are former Rep. Robert Walker, R-Pa., and former shuttle astronauts Ron Sega, Charles Bolden and Robert Crippen.
NASA was burdened with cost overruns when O'Keefe was named to head the agency in 2001. The biggest crisis during his tenure was the shuttle Columbia disaster on Feb. 1, 2003.
In April, a study of the post-Columbia effort to change NASA's culture found many problems remaining and space agency employees still afraid to speak up about safety.
"The leadership's got to take it on, starting with me," O'Keefe said then.
More recently, O'Keefe has been under fire for his insistence that it's too risky to send astronauts to repair the popular Hubble Space Telescope.
NASA also is struggling to return its aging shuttles, grounded after the Columbia accident, to spaceflight. The agency has been unable to make crucial improvements recommended by the Columbia accident board.
O'Keefe has embraced a new space effort, envisioned by President Bush, that would send manned missions to the moon and Mars.
O'Keefe taught business administration and management at Syracuse and Pennsylvania State universities before becoming secretary of the Navy under the first President Bush.
He became deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget under the current President Bush before taking over NASA in January 2002. He is from New Orleans, about an hour's drive from Baton Rouge.
The LSU position has been vacant since June, when Mark Emmert left for the University of Washington. The Baton Rouge campus has 31,500 of the university system's 60,000 students.