WASHINGTON – NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe (search) will resign this week, a government official said Sunday, and a spokesman for Louisiana State University (search) said O'Keefe is a leading candidate to become a chancellor there.
The committee looking for someone to fill the $500,000-a-year job running the campus in Baton Rouge, La., meets Thursday, and O'Keefe will make his case for the job, search committee chairman Joel Tohline said.
O'Keefe has led the space agency for almost three years, a tumultuous period marred by the loss of the shuttle Columbia (search) and its seven astronauts as well as budget battles and debates over the future of American space travel.
The administrator plans to resign this week, said the government official, who did not want to be identified because the procedures for O'Keefe's departure still are not certain.
"The White House still has to decide how it wants to announce his departure," the official said.
Despite O'Keefe's appointment with the search committee on Thursday, the official said his resignation is not linked with an offer from LSU. The official said the resignation probably will come earlier than the scheduled meeting in Louisiana.
White House spokeswoman Suzy DeFrancis had no comment on O'Keefe's future.
NASA spokesman Bob Jacobs said, "When the administrator is prepared to announce his future plans, he will tell us and the public."
Another government official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the news of O'Keefe's impending departure came as a shock — including to those at NASA — even with all the longtime speculation that he might move up in the Bush administration.
But John Logsdon, director of George Washington University's space policy institute and a member of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, 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 administration, probably back in the national security field, kind of his natural home, and that hasn't happened," Logsdon said in a telephone interview late Sunday afternoon. "But he, Sean, has always said that he likes the academic life."
Logsdon noted that O'Keefe's departure needs to be put in context: "Over half the cabinet agencies are changing heads. It is a time of transition, and so I don't think it's particularly traumatic."
LSU system president and acting chancellor William Jenkins "has had his eye on O'Keefe for quite some time," Charles Zewe, spokesman for the university's Board of Supervisors, said Sunday.
O'Keefe told the Melbourne, Fla., newspaper Florida Today, in a story published Saturday, that he was being considered for the LSU job.
Florida Today 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 a 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 and former shuttle astronauts Ron Sega, Charles Bolden and Robert Crippen.
O'Keefe, 48, applied for the LSU job late Friday or early Saturday and is among a number of people being recruited, the search committee's Tohline said.
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.
O'Keefe will be the first applicant interviewed by the LSU search committee, Tohline said. He said the committee could vote Thursday whether to recommend that the Board of Supervisors hire O'Keefe. The board would hold a special session that night if the committee should recommend O'Keefe, board chairman C. Stewart Slack said.
LSU spokesman Zewe said O'Keefe, if hired, would bring "academic background and a name for management at a time when LSU is striving for a new level of excellence."
The position has been vacant since June, when Mark Emmert left for the University of Washington.
LSU's Baton Rouge campus has 31,500 of the system's 60,000 students.