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Orlando Sentinel January 10, 2002

NASA bides time on space debate

By Tamara Lytle

WASHINGTON -- NASA's new leader said Wednesday that he'll decide within the next 18 months whether to build a full-sized space station after looking at the scientific need and getting costs under control.

Critics have said the scaled-down version with only a three-person crew is not large enough to accommodate much science.

But NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe said scientists are debating whether experiments can be done with less crew time than originally planned. The other countries involved in the station want the full crew of six or seven people, saying they are needed for any meaningful research.

But O'Keefe said the issue of how many crew members are needed for science experiments is not settled. "I'm going to let that debate go on and slide pizzas under the door as they fight it out," he said.

John Logsdon, head of the space-policy institute at George Washington University, said the other countries involved in the station have spent billions for the promise of using laboratories in space. The U.S. has an obligation to make sure the station has enough crew to actually use those labs, he said.

Just keeping the space station running takes nearly three crew members. John Pike, a space analyst, said that's why the station was designed with a crew of six or seven. "The whole thing has been designed for 15 years to have three or four people up there fiddling with experiments," Pike said.

O'Keefe said the space station is an important tool for research that can't be conducted on Earth. He said, however, that he still has no firm idea how much the station will cost.

"It can't be done at the expense of everything else this organization does, which is extraordinary," he said.

O'Keefe said his vision includes focusing on tasks that wouldn't be done in the private sector or anywhere else because of their risk and expense. Which NASA programs fail this test and should be jettisoned? "Stay tuned," he said.

O'Keefe, in his seventh day on the job, comes to NASA from the White House budget office at a time when President Bush wants to contain the agency's costs. Bush will release his budget proposal Feb. 4, and NASA is not expected get an increase. But O'Keefe said the aeronautics research budget will go up.

"The good news is Sean knows all the people [in the budget office]," Pike said. "The bad news is, his president doesn't care about NASA."

O'Keefe, who served as Navy secretary and as the Department of Defense's top budget official, said he will push hard to have NASA and the Pentagon work closer together.

O'Keefe said he is frustrated that the two agencies have opted for incompatible designs for such projects as satellites. As the country designs a successor to the space shuttle, he said, the military and civilian sectors of government need to work together to use the same technology.

Copyright 2002, Orlando Sentinel