Senators question NASA nominee on future of space programs

Associated Press WriterWASHINGTON (AP) -- Senators made clear to President Bush's choice to head NASA that they don't want his cost-cutting skills to be used to undermine the scientific goals of the international space station and other key NASA programs.

"I don't think the leader of NASA can be just a budget cutter," Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, said Friday at a Senate Commerce Committee confirmation hearing for Sean O'Keefe. In his current position at the White House Office of Management and Budget, he has been sharply critical of space station cost overruns.

O'Keefe, who is expected to win quick Senate approval, said his first task will be to identify the agency's priorities so that in the long run he can "reinvigorate the entrepreneurial spirit that motivated the organization from its very beginning days." He agreed with senators that reducing the ability of the space station to conduct scientific research "would be a tragedy."

The 45-year-old O'Keefe served as Navy secretary for Bush's father and gained a reputation for his budget cutting when he worked at the Pentagon in the early 1990s under then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney. He's been OMB deputy director since March.

He replaces Daniel Goldin, who stepped down last month after serving as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration head for 9 1/2 years.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., chairman of the committee's science, technology and space panel, told O'Keefe that "there isn't going to be any massive infusion of new funds for NASA" during his tenure, and that unless he does something about the "horrendously mismanaged" space station program, that program will devour money for other NASA priorities.

The U.S. cost of the international program has grown from an estimated $17.4 billion in 1993 to about $30 billion today. To reduce costs, a panel of experts last month recommended that space shuttle flights to the space station be cut from the current six to four a year.

It also endorsed a Bush administration policy to shelve, for the time being, plans to expand living quarters to accommodate seven crew members. The current crew of three is occupied mainly with operating the station, leaving little time for research work.

Hutchison said that would result in "an operation that is there to service the operation" and pressed O'Keefe on his commitment to meeting the goals set by the United States and its European, Japanese, Canadian and Russian partners.

"You can't just keep cutting without paying the price," said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who questioned O'Keefe about reductions in shuttle flights.

O'Keefe said that ending up with a space station incapable of meeting its scientific objectives "is a case that worries me more than anything else." He said his plan was to "get the house in order," determine future costs and then start thinking about expansion.

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