NASA chief Sean O'Keefe is expected to resign from the agency this week to seek the job of chancellor at Louisiana State University, a job vacated by Mark Emmert, the new president...

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WASHINGTON — NASA chief Sean O’Keefe is expected to resign from the agency this week to seek the job of chancellor at Louisiana State University, a job vacated by Mark Emmert, the new president of the University of Washington.

The NASA administrator, who has been in the job for almost three years, is the top choice for chancellor of Louisiana State University (LSU) and has agreed to be a formal candidate, according to a spokesman for the school.

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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, NASA’s chief spokesman, declined to comment on the rumors yesterday. But U.S. Rep. Dave Weldon, R-Fla., said that while he had not spoken with O’Keefe, it is his understanding that the agency head plans to leave.

Weldon, whose district abuts Kennedy Space Center, said that conversations with his staff members 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 William Jenkins, who has been interim chancellor since Emmert left in June, and others have been recruiting O’Keefe for the job.

O’Keefe, who got his bachelor’s degree from Loyola University New Orleans and has family there, was in Louisiana last week.

Zewe said O’Keefe told him yesterday that he’d agreed to be a formal candidate for the job late Friday night.

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 program.

In his first 13 months, O’Keefe focused on management, with only a few new ideas — including supporting the development of an in-space nuclear propulsion system — percolating up.

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. The ensuing investigation raised a slew of new questions about the safety of the shuttle. When the Columbia Accident Investigation Board delivered its report in August of 2003, O’Keefe vowed to fulfill all of its safety recommendations.

The shuttle Discovery is scheduled for launch in May or June.

O’Keefe also used the accident to push for a bigger and 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 gotten a lukewarm reception in Congress, but during the last-minute negotiations over a massive budget package last month, NASA — with the help of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay — got the $16.2 billion it wanted. O’Keefe later said the budget was a clear message of approval.