John Matson is an associate editor at Scientific American focusing on space, physics and mathematics. Follow on Twitter
Sean O’Keefe, who led NASA from 2001 to 2005, survived an August 9 plane crash in southwestern Alaska that killed former U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, according to The New York Times and NASA Watch. O’Keefe’s son Kevin, who was also on board, reportedly survived the crash as well.
Five of the nine people on the small plane were killed, according to news reports. The Times‘s source, an anonymous official with knowledge of the crash, said that O’Keefe, 54, was "badly injured" and had been airlifted to a hospital.
O’Keefe has served as CEO of aerospace and defense firm EADS North America since 2009. According to a NASA biography, he held several positions in Washington, D.C., before President George H. W. Bush tapped him to be Secretary of the Navy in 1992. President George W. Bush appointed O’Keefe to lead NASA in 2001.
O’Keefe presided over a time of tragedy and transition for NASA. In 2003 space shuttle Columbia broke up over Texas during atmospheric reentry, killing all seven crew members. The next year President Bush unveiled his Vision for Space Exploration, a sweeping reinvention of the space agency that called for the retirement of the space shuttle and the development of a new system of rockets and crew hardware—later known as Constellation—to return astronauts to the moon by 2020.
Although the shuttle is indeed inching toward a planned retirement in 2011, the fate of Constellation is much less clear. President Barack Obama is seeking a major overhaul of Bush’s space policy, including a termination of the Constellation program’s core launch vehicles and an abandonment of the 2020 moon goal.
O’Keefe was NASA’s 10th administrator, although the agency has had several additional acting administrators. Of O’Keefe’s eight (full, non-acting) predecessors as NASA chief (one man, James C. Fletcher, took two turns at the helm), four survive: Robert A. Frosch, James M. Beggs, Richard H. Truly and Daniel S. Goldin.
Official NASA portrait of O’Keefe: NASA/Bill Ingalls