By Joe Picard - 07/24/12 09:00 AM EDT
Sean O’Keefe had approximately six seconds to brace for impact against an Alaskan mountainside.
“I don’t know how it happened,” O’Keefe told The Hill. “The pilot, I guess, just lost his bearings. There was no turbulence; everything was perfectly smooth. The emergency alert sounded, which meant six seconds to impact. I looked up and saw the mountainside.”
“If he had not done that, you’d be having this interview without me,” O’Keefe said.
Five of the nine people aboard the plane did not survive the August 2010 crash, including former Sen. Ted Stevens (R) of Alaska. Stevens, O’Keefe and friends were headed for a fishing trip when tragedy struck.
O’Keefe, then 54 years old, was an accomplished man. He’d served two presidents and been the head of NASA and the chancellor of Louisiana State University. He was then, as now, CEO of EADS North America, a subsidiary of the European aerospace and defense giant. He was instrumental in making the International Space Station a reality. An asteroid is named for him.
On that day in the Alaskan wilderness, he was frightened, suffering from several broken bones and pinned down in the mangled ruins of an aircraft.
“I was awake almost immediately after the crash, awake and aware, but I couldn’t move.”
Next to him was Stevens. He checked his pulse and realized that his friend of 30 years was dead. O’Keefe’s 19-year-old son, Kevin, was suspended in his harness a few feet away, out of his father’s reach and unresponsive to his cries.
“Those were the worst 45 minutes of my life, not knowing if my son was alive, not being able to reach him, and knowing that Ted and others were dead. When Kevin finally regained consciousness, my outlook changed from one of absolute despair to hopefulness.”
It was several hours before the wreckage was spotted and not until the next morning that the survivors would be airlifted out.
Before help arrived, O’Keefe thought about how, having survived the crash, the four of them might well die of exposure. And the overwhelming odor of gasoline leaking from the split tank had him expecting the worst.
“It is difficult to articulate the range of emotions — disbelief, fear, despair, hope, love, grief. That was a significantly cathartic 18-hour span.”
O’Keefe said the experience changed his outlook on life.
“First of all, you take every day as a bonus. Secondly, now, when I suffer a setback, I realize that it’s relative. The importance diminishes in ‘the grand scheme of things.’
“Third, there’s a totally random aspect to life. Some things are completely out of your control. The best you can do is put your best effort forward, but calibrate your expectations on the fact of other factors being out of your control.”
O’Keefe began his career as a budget analyst for the Department of Defense, then honed his skills as a staff member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. He earned a reputation as a man who understood budgets and could bring projects to conclusion.
President George H.W. Bush appointed him chief financial officer of the Department of Defense and, later, acting secretary of the Navy. When the second President Bush took office, he installed O’Keefe as deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget.
“Somebody has to figure out how to meld the various capacities and drive to an outcome based on the different skill sets pulling together. What modest success I’ve had is based on my ability to drive a project to its outcome.”
By late 2001, the construction of the International Space Station, with all its overruns and coordination problems, was becoming an international problem. Bush needed a troubleshooter.
“He couldn’t find anyone to take the job,” O’Keefe said with a smile. “I wasn’t given much of an option. When the president of the United States says, ‘You have to do this,’ the last thing you say is ‘No.’ ”
O’Keefe became NASA administrator. He trimmed $5 billion of overruns from the space-station budget and oversaw the successful installation of the modern marvel.
“It was a process management challenge. It involved several months of working through the sequences of how the project was developed. Then you start taking time out of the equation, finding the shortest distance from A to B. Reduce time, you reduce costs. Next, you take out the nice-to-haves, all the neat stuff that was not essential.”
In February 2003, O’Keefe faced another test after the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated, killing all seven astronauts onboard.
The following year, NASA scientists clamored for a manned shuttle mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope, even though the new safety checks ordered after the Columbia disaster were incomplete. They said the risk was worth taking to save the powerful telescope.
O’Keefe disagreed and nixed the mission.
“I was there at the Kennedy Space Center when Columbia went down. I saw the faces of the family members, watched their emotions shift from elation to deep despair.”
O’Keefe said that some of the aggrieved family members asked him to make sure such a calamity never happened again.
“In anything you do, there are risks. But if you are facing known risks and do nothing to mitigate them — that’s irresponsible.”
As it turned out, the scientists were wrong about the window of opportunity. After the Space Shuttle had been cleared for flight, repairs to the Hubble were made successfully in 2009.
In his current capacity as CEO of EADS North America and chairman of the National Defense Industrial Association (NDIA), O’Keefe is again talking responsibility, and the lack thereof, regarding the automatic $500 billion cut to the Pentagon’s budget that will take place next year if Congress doesn’t act to reverse it.
“Sequestration was meant to scare people into taking action. The result has been the opposite. It has caused people who should be acting to relinquish control.”
He’s penned a letter for NDIA to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) arguing that the cuts would cripple the defense industry, increase unemployment, slow the economy, force smaller contractors out of business and jeopardize national security.
“And their inability to work this out has called the full faith and credit of the United States into question. And for what?”
O’Keefe shook his head. “This may result in costing us as much in inefficiency as they think they’re saving by budget cuts.”