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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) _ Around the hallways of NASA, he's known as the probation officer, the man chosen by the White House to whip the space agency _ specifically, the space station _ into shape in two years.

Never mind that Sean O'Keefe, the new NASA administrator, isn't a rocket scientist or even a space buff. The budget expert known for a heavy knife is winning early, if cautious, praise from space program workers who are relieved to have a seemingly gentle, humble man as their boss after a punishing and intense decade under Daniel Goldin.

O'Keefe, who turned 46 Sunday, is the youngest person ever to head NASA. He exudes calm while talking of a to-do list requiring difficult decisions. He tells employees at NASA centers around the country it's too soon to say whether their operations will need to be closed or their jobs eliminated.

With budget overruns in the billions and no final price tag, the international space station has cost NASA untold credibility over the past year and chipped away at other programs.

O'Keefe's mission is to stop the hemorrhaging.

``Everybody's apprehensive. Any time that you go through budget-cutting it makes you nervous,'' said astronaut Jerry Ross, who helped put together the first pieces of the space station in 1998 and will go back up in April to add more.

For the most part, those who work in the space program really care about what they do and fear O'Keefe may focus more on budgets than science, said space shuttle worker Art Willett. O'Keefe most recently served as deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget.

``Their hearts and souls are in it, so when you stick that with anything and they feel threatened, then they just back off to see what's going to happen,'' Willett said.

Space station senior scientist Roger Crouch said O'Keefe offers a fresh perspective on the budget and management problems and that's good. ``Most people are optimistic about it,'' Crouch said.

``It's cautious (optimism) because we don't know what it will bring,'' explained a NASA employee who did not want to be identified. ``But we kind of sense that we're in a lot of trouble on the Hill and we're in trouble with our public and we're in trouble with our programs and that he may be somebody to help us out.''

Many past and present space workers agree it doesn't matter, for now, that O'Keefe is not a space visionary. After all, money is tight, a war is on and the latest Brookings Institution survey on government priorities puts space exploration near the bottom of the list.

Goldin, an aerospace industry executive who got the nation's top space job from President Bush's father, talked passionately during his 9 1/2-year tenure about getting people to Mars. Not accomplishing that was his biggest regret.

When O'Keefe is asked about Mars, he responds, ``What's the point?''

``If we get there and say, 'Well, we're here and now what's supposed to happen next,' then what have we really accomplished?'' O'Keefe said soon after taking office. ``We have to have something in mind for why you do it.''

O'Keefe never worked in the space business and never thought about working in the space business until the president nominated him as NASA's 10th administrator in November. Bush's father had chosen O'Keefe as secretary of the Navy nine years earlier; Dick Cheney, then defense secretary, was O'Keefe's boss.

O'Keefe, who was sworn in Jan. 15 by Cheney, readily admits to being naive when it comes to space matters, though he's making it his business to learn _ fast. He pokes fun at himself, to the delight of NASA's 18,700 employees around the nation.

During his swearing-in ceremony at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, O'Keefe drew laughs when he described his children's reactions to his new job. Fifteen-year-old daughter Lindsey, his oldest, raised her eyebrows in disbelief. Son Jonathan informed him, ``Gee, that's amazing, Dad, I thought you had to be really smart to be in that job.'' And son Kevin said, ``Yeah, you have to admit Dad, you're no rocket scientist.''

``All of these are quite true, regrettably,'' O'Keefe told the crowd. He said the more appropriate candidate would be his own father, a retired nuclear engineer.

James Oberg, an engineer who used to work in Mission Control, said O'Keefe is actually perfect for the job because of his expertise in business and public administration.

``A person from that discipline is precisely what NASA needs _ and can't survive without,'' said Oberg, author of the new book ``Star-Crossed Orbits: Inside the U.S.-Russian Space Alliance.''

Oberg offers this comparison of O'Keefe and his predecessor: ``Goldin walked into a room, he was convinced he was the smartest man there. Sean O'Keefe knows he's not.''

Goldin, 61, was also loud, brash and tireless; he boasted of 100-hour work weeks and evoked fear among many of his staff.

``It was very punishing under Goldin. It was obviously very intense and everything was a crisis,'' said an employee who did not want to be identified. ``I think we're looking forward to emphasis on the 'M' for management.''

O'Keefe said he wants to reinstill NASA's entrepreneurial spirit. He also wants to clarify the scientific objectives of the space station and make sure NASA is doing everything right before proceeding with the original plans for larger and more elaborate lodgings.

He insists the Bush administration supports the space station, even though it shelved the lifeboat and living quarters necessary for expanding the crew from the current three to the desired seven.

An independent task force recommended in November that the space station be scaled back for now and that NASA be put on a two-year probation of sorts to demonstrate its credibility in managing the program. The number of shuttle delivery missions should be reduced to save money, the panel suggested, and resident stays prolonged. A smaller work force is inevitable throughout the program, it added.

O'Keefe's early take on the report: ``The commission has laid out a very good blueprint.''

Like so many others, Bob Sieck, a retired shuttle launch director who serves on the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, is proud of the technical achievements of the space station as components shoot up one after the other. But he acknowledges the financial side of the house needs help.

``It gets back to this credibility thing. You've got to have a good handle on what it's really going to cost to finish the program,'' Sieck said.

Hopefully, O'Keefe's approach, he said, will ``help get those kinds of problems behind us.''

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