Administrator O'Keefe pitches his vision for NASA

Posted: March 27, 2002

O'Keefe speaks Tuesday at Women in Aerospace event. Photo: Jeff Foust
NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe described his vision for the space agency on Tuesday, emphasizing the development of technologies to solve key problems in space exploration rather than focusing on a particular destination.

O'Keefe, three months into his tenure as NASA administrator, spoke Tuesday at a breakfast on Capitol Hill sponsored by Women in Aerospace. He used the speech to outline the direction he plans to take the space agency in the months and years to come.

O'Keefe's vision for NASA, which he describes as still a "work in progress", is a departure from past plans for the agency. Rather than focus on a specific destination, like the Moon or Mars, he said that he plans to work instead on overcoming technological limitations that pose problems for missions to any future destination.

O'Keefe noted that recent efforts to define a direction for NASA have attempted to emulate past successes, notably the Apollo program. "We articulate a vision that harks back to our storied past," he said. Those visions have been oriented around specific destinations, such as Mars, just as Apollo was focused on the Moon. But the true success of Apollo, according to O'Keefe, was not the choice of a destination but "more a demonstration of what we could do."

Instead of choosing an arbitrary destination, O'Keefe said NASA should focus instead on solving the key technical obstacles for any future missions. The two biggest problems, he said, are power and propulsion in deep space, and the hazardous radiation environment for humans traveling beyond Earth. "Rather than defining destinations we have to deal with these two problems," he said. "It doesn't sound like a grandiose destination, but it will allow us to do those things in the future."

O'Keefe singled out the long travel times for missions traveling to the far reaches of the solar system as a major obstacle to space exploration. The long flight times -- a minimum of 8-10 years to reach Pluto -- put limits on the technology that can be used on such missions, in turn limiting their capabilities.

While O'Keefe said he was open to other propulsion technology possibilities, he said that nuclear power was the "most mature" option, which is why funding to begin studies of nuclear power and propulsion systems was included in the proposed 2003 NASA budget. "The challenges are more emotional than they are technical," he said.

The intense radiation environment of deep space emerged as O'Keefe's other major concern. He referred to data collected by the MARIE instrument on Mars Odyssey that showed that astronauts in interplanetary space would be exposed to more than twice the radiation levels measured on the International Space Station. Solving this problem is "one of the greatest challenges" faced by NASA, he said.

Unlike former administrator Dan Goldin, who saw human missions to Mars as the ultimate goal of NASA in the coming decades, O'Keefe described the Red Planet as simply "a very intriguing destination" but not the sole or even primary goal for the space agency. "There are a range of destinations that become possible once we beat these problems," he said. "If we can't conquer some of those limitations, we are engaging in fantasy."

O'Keefe also suggested that future human exploration of the solar system be done as more of a cooperative international venture, perhaps including the Chinese. Speaking the day after China launched Shenzhou 3, a prototype of a manned spacecraft, O'Keefe said that he has had discussions with Richard Armitage, Deputy Secretary of State, regarding the "art of the possible" of future partnering agreements with China, but offered no further details.