Former NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe is returning to Washington this spring to head GE Aviation’s Washington
operations, a job that will put him in a prominent aerospace post during the critical, closing months of a presidential race that once again finds the 52-year-old public policy veteran playing the role of adviser.
In January, U.S. Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign announced that O’Keefe had endorsed the Arizona Republican for president. The endorsement came as McCain was running neck and neck with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney for the Republican nomination.
In a March 26 interview, O’Keefe said
he has been advising the McCain camp on economic issues, contributing to the occasional speech, and “showing up at a few campaign events.” He said space policy is not among the issues he has discussed with the campaign.
O’Keefe said he has no plans to return to government service. With two children in college and a third ready to start in fall 2009, O’Keefe said he cannot afford to take the type of pay cut that political appointments often entail. “[I am] planning to remain in anything that will pay more than Wendy’s typically offers, which is about comparable to what the federal government typically offers,” O’Keefe said. “It’s kind of a hard way to make a living.”
O’Keefe has spent his entire career in government and academia. When he took leave of the No. 2
job at the White House Office of Management and Budget to be sworn in as NASA administrator in December 2001, it marked his fourth presidential appointment. He previously had served as comptroller and chief financial officer at the Pentagon and did a short stint as Secretary of the Navy during the administration of
President George H.W. Bush, the current president’s father. In between Bush administrations, he taught public policy at Syracuse University in New York.
When O’Keefe announced in December 2004 that he would be stepping down as NASA administrator
, academia again was where he was bound. But this time he had landed a much higher-paying job
as the chancellor of Louisiana State University (LSU), a position
that came with a $500,000 salary, a
campus residence and other perks.
O’Keefe resigned as chancellor in January, citing differences with the new president and the board of the state’s university system concerning the school’s
“Their agenda has shifted relative to the one I was recruited to accomplish four years ago,” O’Keefe told Space News. “So rather than changing the strategy or my focus on what I signed up to and thought was the right thing to do, I elected to invite the system president to recruit someone who could carry out his new agenda in a way that he thought was in comport with what he thinks is an appropriate future for LSU as a campus and LSU as a system, and so therefore I resigned.”
O’Keefe, who still has a house in Northern Virginia, starts at GE Aircraft here in June. He said he expects the bulk of his job to entail working with the federal regulatory agencies and “interfacing with the commercial aviation industry,” which he said accounts for about 70 percent of GE’s engine sales. Military sales account for about a third of the company’s business. “Nevertheless, it’s an important third,” he said.
GE Aircraft is part of the Northrop Grumman-EADS team that beat Boeing Co. in late February to win a $35 billion contract to build aerial tankers for the U.S. Air Force. Boeing had once been poised to lease 100 Boeing 767 tankers to the Air Force, but that proposal died after a congressional investigation led by McCain ultimately resulted in sending top Air Force procurement official Darleen Druyu
n to jail for negotiating a job with Boeing while overseeing the tanker deal.
Boeing, meanwhile, is protesting the Northrop Grumman-EADS tanker win. The company has taken out full-page newspaper ads criticizing the deal and found
support in Congress among lawmakers concerned that the Air Force’s decision will send too many jobs overseas.
O’Keefe, however, said he does not see the tanker protest as a front-burner issue for GE Aircraft when he hits the door.
“Last I checked EADS-Northrop Grumman won,” O’Keefe said.
Still, he acknowledged that the decision and subsequent protest has taken on a political dimension.
“It’s not a Hill matter,” he said. “It’s just something that will manifest itself in a public debate on Capitol Hill. But it’s not necessarily something that is within their jurisdiction except to ensure that the contract was done properly.”
GE Aircraft sells jet engines both to Boeing and Airbus, which is part of EADS.
O’Keefe’s new job is expected to bring him into close contact with the Arlington, Va.-based Aerospace Industries Association, now headed by Marion Blakely, who ran the Federal Aviation Administration when O’Keefe was at NASA.
In addition, O’Keefe recently joined the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Science Advisory Board. Although he attended his first meeting in mid
-March in Silver Spring
, Md., O’Keefe said he was asked by his long
time friend, NOAA Administrator
Conrad Lautenbacher, to join the board last year well before he knew he would be leaving LSU.
The board, which is the NOAA equivalent of the NASA Advisory Council, is chaired by University of Washington Associate Professor David Fluharty. Other members include former Aerospace Corp. President William Balhaus and Michael Keebaugh, vice president of Garland, Texas-based Raytheon Intelligence and Information Systems.