The NASA administrator, who has been in the job for almost three years, is the top choice for chancellor of Louisiana State University and has agreed to be a formal candidate, according to a spokesman for the school.
O'Keefe's departure would close the book on a period of tragedy and transition for the agency, marked by budget cutting, the 2003 Columbia space shuttle disaster, investigations and ambitious plans to send astronauts back to the moon and eventually to Mars.
Glenn Mahone, chief spokesman for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, declined to comment on the rumors surrounding O'Keefe yesterday. Florida Rep. Dave Weldon said that though he had not spoken with O'Keefe, it is his understanding that the agency head does plan to leave.
Weldon, a Republican whose district abuts Kennedy Space Center, said conversations with his staff led him to believe that O'Keefe "is taking the job at LSU."
Charles Zewe, a spokesman for the LSU board of supervisors, said yesterday that interim Chancellor William Jenkins and others have been recruiting O'Keefe for the job, which is essentially the CEO of the university.
"He seemed receptive to the idea, and we're delighted that he's receptive to the idea," Zewe said. "We think Mr. O'Keefe is a tremendous talent, inside academia and inside the government, and has done a tremendous job in all the assignments he's been given in government and in the halls of academia. We'd be delighted to have him as our chancellor."
Zewe said O'Keefe and Jenkins have spoken by phone but could not say whether they'd met in person to discuss the job. O'Keefe, who received his bachelor's degree from Loyola University in New Orleans and has family there, was in Louisiana last week.
LSU Chancellor Mark Emmert resigned in June, and Jenkins, the president of the university system, has been serving in an interim capacity since. The search committee was formed in June and has met at least four times, including last week, according to the university's Web site.
Zewe said the committee would move quickly through the interview and selection process. He said O'Keefe told him yesterday that he'd agreed to be a formal candidate for the job late Friday night.
"He would be a very strong candidate, and that is the opinion of the system president, Dr. Jenkins, and just about anybody," Zewe said.
Before joining NASA, O'Keefe, 48, had spent less than a year as deputy director of the White House budget office. During the administration of the first President George Bush, O'Keefe was comptroller and chief financial officer at the Defense Department and served as secretary of the Navy during the last few months of his term.
O'Keefe earned a master's degree from Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs and first came to Washington as a presidential management intern in 1978. He later served for almost a decade as a staff member for the Senate Appropriations Committee.
In between the two Bush administrations, O'Keefe was a professor at Pennsylvania State University and Syracuse.
"Dr. Jenkins has had his eye on O'Keefe for quite some time," Zewe said. "He's followed his career and thought very highly of him. It's just been a long-running kind of friendship and respect for the man's abilities."
The news of O'Keefe's decision to resign was first reported at http://nasawatch.com, a Web site that tracks news and information about the space program. There has been speculation in Washington for months that O'Keefe might leave to go back to the Pentagon.
When O'Keefe was confirmed by the Senate in December 2001, his chief task was putting NASA's books in order, including solving the problem of billions of dollars in cost overruns for the International Space Station.
In his first 13 months, O'Keefe focused on management, with a few new ideas - including supporting the development of an in-space nuclear propulsion system - percolating.
But on the morning of Feb. 1, 2003, O'Keefe's job took a major turn: The loss of the space shuttle Columbia as it re-entered the Earth's atmosphere over east Texas killed seven astronauts and returned the nation's attention to the space program.
The accident grounded the remaining three orbiters and caused a scaling back of activity aboard the space station, and the ensuing investigation raised a slew of questions about the safety of the shuttle. When the Columbia Accident Investigation Board delivered its report in August 2003, O'Keefe vowed to fulfill all of its safety recommendations.
Doing so, however, has been a long and tricky process. The shuttle Discovery is scheduled for launch in May or June, although that date might change.
O'Keefe also used the accident to push for a more ambitious agenda for the space program as a whole. On Jan. 16, he got it: President Bush proposed a long-term plan to send astronauts back to the moon and, eventually, on to Mars.
The plan has received a lukewarm reception in Congress, but during the last-minute negotiations over a huge budget package last month, NASA got the $16.2 billion it wanted.
The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.