NASA Chief Candidate Appointed to DOE Post

WASHINGTON- U.S. President Barack Obama has named a second man previously considered forNASA administrator to another post in the administration by reappointing SteveIsakowitz to chief financial officer of the U.S. Department of Energy.

Obamaannounced Isakowitz?s nomination March 20, just as a group of Isakowitzsupporters rallied to keep the prospect alive that Isakowitz might be named the nextNASA chief. The loosely formed coalition of bipartisan supporters saidIsakowitz had been mischaracterized by opponents on Capitol Hill, and warnedthat it could take three months or more to get a NASA administrator in place ifthe administration had to begin a new search.

Obama?sreappointment of Isakowitz came two days after the president appointed retiredU.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Scott Gration as special envoy to Sudan. Obama?stransition team hadfloated Gration?s name in January as the likely nominee to be NASA chief,but some members of Congress balked at his lack of space experience.

Isakowitz,chief financial officer of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) since June 2007and former NASA comptroller and deputy associate administrator of explorationsystems, also faced opposition from lawmakers over a? Feb. 13 U.S. GovernmentAccountability Office report critical of budget analyses used to justify therestructuring of a DOE clean-coal power plant demonstration project calledFuture Gen.

Obama saidMarch 11 that he would appoint a NASA chief ?soon,? but the process stalledamid concern that Isakowitz was to blame for DOE estimates that Future Gencosts had doubled. Future Gen costs had increased by 39 percent, the reportsaid.

Opponentshad characterized Isakowitz as a budgeter who lacks interest in human spaceflight.

Formercolleagues defended Isakowitz, saying he is the type of leader NASA needs tosteer the agency through difficult fiscal times and through the transitionfrom the space shuttle to the next astronaut-carrying vehicle aimed ateventually returning Americans to the Moon. They also said he had nothing to dowith the decision to restructure Future Gen, and that he had been unfairlyblamed.

??Hedoesn?t have an ideological ax to grind at all, he?s very creative, he?sobviously brilliant, but he doesn?t come in with a lot of bias,? said JimMuncy, a former congressional staffer who worked with Isakowitz when he was atNASA. ?He?s a good analyst and clearly a good manager because he?s inspired alot of people around him.?

BrettAlexander, president of the Personal Spaceflight Federation, an advocacy grouphere, said Isakowitz had support from the science and human spaceflightcommunity, and worried that the lengthy process of vetting another candidatecould leave NASA without an administrator for another three months.

?We couldbe back to square one, and I don?t think that?s good for anybody, particularlyshuttle and work force issues,? Alexander said.

Meanwhile,members of Congress, NASA staff and the space industry are growing frustratedthat NASA still does not have a permanent administrator, despite earlier hopesthat Obama would announce his pick before the end of January.

MichaelCoats, director of NASA?s Johnson Space Center in Houston, said during a March19 Space Transportation Association breakfast that the uncertainty over NASA?sfuture was ?driving folks crazy? and that people do not have a clear sense yetof the direction Obama?s space policy will take.

?I knowChris Scolese, the acting administrator, is reluctant to make anything thatmight be perceived as policy decisions, and yet it?s very hard when you?rerunning an agency to make a decision that isn?t perceived as policy in someway. So Chris is kind of in a tough spot, he?s doing a great job ? but he needssome help over there,? Coats said. ?We?re trying to do everything we can at thecenters to support him but it would help if he could have an administrator anda deputy administrator and some direction.?

A dayearlier, 14 members of the U.S. House of Representatives from Florida, Alabama,Texas and California - all of which host major NASA facilities - sent a letterto Obama March 18 urging the president to make a decision. The letter stressedthe importance of leadership given the planned2010 retirement date for the space shuttle and the looming five-year gapuntil NASA fields its next generation astronaut-carrying rocket.

?As youknow, this issue is linked to our economic recovery since the gap could resultin layoffs for several thousand highly skilled aerospace engineers andtechnicians over the next two years,? the letter said. ?We urge you to keepthese issues in mind as you search for a NASA administrator candidate with theright background, integrity and focus on minimizing the spaceflight gap andpreserving the agency?s cutting edge science and aeronautics programs.?

Sen.Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), who chairs the Senate Appropriations subcommittee oncommerce, justice and science, which oversees NASA?s budget, told a group of600 gathered at the Maryland Space Business Roundtable March 16 that she isdisappointed that NASA does not yet have an administrator.

?We?ve metwith the transition teams, vetting teams - I?m ready to meet with the Marylandbasketball team,? Mikulski joked. ?So when the president makes his nomination Iwant it to be a three-pointer. And like Maryland, you know you can count on thewomen?s team to make sure we?re in the finals.?

Mikulskiwould not comment on prospective candidates, but said the NASA chief must meetwith her and be a strong manager and not a ?Johnnie-one-note or aJanie-one-note that?s going to back any one part of the program.?

?What is abalanced space program? A commitmentto human spaceflight, a commitment to science - Earth, space, solar, theuniverse - aeronautics and to education. You must support the president?sagenda,? the senator said. ?That?s my criteria.?

Sen. BillNelson (D-Fla.), chairman of the Senate Commerce subcommittee on science andspace that would preside over the initial confirmation hearing for the NASAadministrator nominee, has endorsed former NASA astronaut and retired U.S.Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Charlie Bolden. Nelson flew once on the shuttle andBolden was the pilot on that mission.

Shortlyafter Gration was reported to be Obama?s top pick, Nelson issued a statementsaying he wants NASA?s top official to have the knowledge and experience offormer NASA Administrator Mike Griffin, an aerospace engineer who worked in theaerospace industry for more than three decades. Griffin departed NASA inJanuary.

An aide toNelson said the senator ?sees Charlie Bolden as an individual who sees theagency in the context of being vital to national security, public safety,science and technology, and a major contributor to human exploration.?

However,the aide said Nelson ?absolutely would consider someone else as long as he feltthat individual would have that global view of NASA.?

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SpaceNews reporter

Becky Ianotta is a former SpaceNews reporter covering space industry and policy news from 2008 to 2009. Becky earned a bachelor's degree in English/Journalism from the University of Miami. She spent five years as an editor with the Key West Citizen in Florida before joining the SpaceNews team. She later wrote for Air Force Times before taking her current position as communication director for Mother's Against Drunk Driving.