NASA’s latest expedition is to hell — in a hand basket. Today could well be the end of an era. Long-time National Aeronautics and Space Administration Administrator Dan Goldin retires today. On Wednesday, President Bush announced the appointment of Sean O’Keefe, an economic analyst, to NASA’s highest position.

O’Keefe is currently the deputy director of the White House Office of Management and Budget. So, technically, the largest space science agency in the world is now officially in the hands of a glorified accountant.

To Bush’s credit, O’Keefe may have not have been his first choice. A NASA official who wished to remain nameless said that 35 different people are rumored to have been tapped before O’Keefe. Most, if not all of them, come from outside the space agency.

Putting a budget man in charge of a science agency is not merely a bad decision – in this case, it’s a conflict of interest: while at the OMB, O’Keefe was charged with the task of auditing NASA.

Bush has gone on record saying that NASA will not be allowed any more budget overruns. Many at NASA see O’Keefe’s appointment as the introduction of an enforcer — Bush’s own personal goon.

The problem for NASA is in the current political climate. Budget overruns are a necessity rather than a convenience. The International Space Station (ISS) has been the primary source of these overruns, stretching billions of dollars over budget.

The fault for these overruns lies not with NASA, but with Boeing, NASA’s primary contractor. Boeing grossly underestimated the cost of building the space station, and the space agency is now paying through the nose.

In addition, the U.S. has also been forced to bail out the Russian space agency, which often cannot afford to launch its own rockets, despite help from sponsors like Dennis Tito and Pizza Hut.

Last week, Bush pulled the plug on NASA’s funding for an escape vehicle on the space station. This omission will limit the size of the ISS crew to three members, rather than the projected seven. Before the decision, NASA convened an independent panel of top scientists to assess the potential effectiveness of a three-member crew.

They determined that it would render ISS useless for nearly all of the purposes for which it was originally designed.

Unsatisfied with the opinion of experts, O’Keefe brought his considerable scientific expertise (i.e. none) to bear on the subject, testifying that a three-person crew could do “good science” aboard ISS.

NASA’s budget has been cut nearly continuously for the last ten years. Most project directors consider themselves strapped for cash. The budget for space probe missions has gone down from about $3 billion per project in the early ’90s to roughly $130 million now.

Remember that O’Keefe was responsible earlier this year for reviewing NASA’s budget. He, more than any other person, knows how tight NASA’s money is — so tight that it is responsible for many of the agency’s recent failures.

To no one’s great surprise, NASA’s funds were cut again this year. However, less than a week before O’Keefe’s appointment was announced, the figures were revised and the cut was made smaller. The timing sounds suspicious.

It would be no great shock if the revised numbers were a result of an attempt by O’Keefe to save his own hide. After all, the more money he has to play with, the better he’ll look as an administrator if he can manage it.

Some claim that an economic analyst will be able to stretch funds to the limit. Many others are concerned that O’Keefe, with no scientific training, will have no idea how to prioritize NASA’s many complex technical projects.

Normally one could take comfort in the fact that top government appointees are subject to lengthy and grueling confirmation hearings by the Senate, affirming that they are qualified for their respective positions.

The Senate had indeed confirmed that O’Keefe is experienced and well qualified – to run the Office of Management and Budget. He will still have to be confirmed by the Senate for the new position, but critics claim the second review will be cursory at best while congress is faced with larger issues.

This does nothing to quell the fears of NASA scientists who see O’Keefe as hired muscle for the Bush administration. And they’re not the only ones who are nervous.

Shortly after it floated that O’Keefe was to be the new NASA administrator, the European Space Agency convened its board of ministers. The ESA is now threatening to freeze 60 percent of its funding for the ISS until the U.S. further defines its objectives for the station.

Many in the NASA ranks say they are merely thankful that the new president has made some legislative decisions regarding NASA, after having ignored the agency for the first 10 months of his term.

But it’s hard to be thankful for a downsized project, a budget cut and a vapid nomination – all within two weeks.

It’s a sad state of affairs when abuse passes for attention.

Josh Braun is the Daily Nexus science editor. Red Tape usually runs on Mondays.