Leading Irish American Sean O'Keefe and his son Kevin have both survived a fatal plane crash that killed ex- Alaska senator Ted Stevens. O'Keefe former head of NASA and CEO of aerospace firm EADS North America, was first listed as missing after the plane came down in a remote Alaska wilderness.
Sean O'Keefe was honored by Irish America magazine as one of the Top 100 Irish Americans in 2003 and 2004. His family hails from counties Cork and Sligo. When asked what his heritage means to him O'Keefe replied "A heritage of persistence, ingenuity and industry -- a rich sense of culture to inspire achievement."
Accepting his award in 2004 he chose not to use his own words but the words of President John F. Kennedy. He spoke about the relevance of J.F.K's famous speech on space travel and its continued relevance.
John F. Kennedy had said "Frank O'Connor, the Irish writer, tells in one of his books how, as a boy, he and his friends would make their way across the countryside, and when they came to an orchard wall that seemed too high and too doubtful to try and too difficult to permit their voyage to continue, they took off their hats and tossed them over the wall--and then they had no choice but to follow them. This Nation has tossed its cap over the wall of space, and we have no choice but to follow it."
O'Keefe was born and raised in Monterey, California and New Orleans and has a reputation for liking an good sing-song in an Irish bar. A former employee of the Washington Post recalled meeting O'Keefe in New Orleans and promptly going to an old Irish pub.
He said "Sean and his brother were singing Irish tunes, not well, but loudly."
O'Keefe's professional history is certainly an inspiring story. Currently O'Keefe is the Chief Executive Officer of EADS North America, part of the European aerospace firm EADS.
From 2001 to 2005 he worked as the Administrative head of NASA. On December 21 he was officially given the position by President George W. Bush. O'Keefe was part of the Bush Administration team since inauguration day. He served as deputy director to the Office of Management and Budget and deputy assistant to President Bush prior to his appointment to NASA.
His years in NASA were marked by great success, in the Mars Exploration Rovers and also great tragedy, as seven astronauts died in the Space Shuttle Columbia accident in 2003.
Following the Columbia crash in 2003 the agency took to reevaluating its old ways of doing things and a more open environment of discussion about improvements and safety was created. At the time O'Keefe told Irish America magazine "Make no mistake, the accident really, really shook the foundation of this agency…It forced us to think about these absolutes, things we take as fact."
An article in the Washington Post following the disaster quoted congressional aides who praised O'Keefe for restoring morale and sound management practices to NASA. "He really understands how government works, but he also will remember that in the end, this is about people," said Dave Gribbin, Dick Cheney's assistant secretary.
After the accident O'Keefe also named a crater where one of the rovers landed the Columbia Memorial Station and designated January 29th as a "Day of Remembrance" for the lost crew. "It's a time to continually remind ourselves of what the price is for getting it wrong."
In 2005 he resigned from his position in NASA and took up the position of chancellor of Louisiana State University. He resigned from this role in January 2008 before taking up his current position in EADS.
Asteroid 78905 Seanokeefe was named after him in honor of his time as NASA Administrator.