Monday, February 9, 2009

Politics of a NASA successor

"Political Tensions Hamper Search for NASA Chief"


Andy Pasztor

Februrary 6th, 2009


Disagreements between the White House and some senior Democratic lawmakers have complicated the choice of the next U.S. civilian space chief -- and led to the emergence of a possible compromise candidate.

Retired four-star Air Force Gen. Lester L. Lyles is now viewed as new contender to head the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, according to lawmakers and aerospace industry officials. Gen. Lyles once headed the country's missile-defense program and more recently participated in blue-ribbon commissions studying manned space exploration.

Barely three weeks ago, White House officials were close to announcing that another retired Air Force general, Scott Gration, had been chosen to run NASA. But the decision was put off partly because veteran Democratic lawmakers, especially Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, complained about Gen. Gration's lack of NASA and space background.

The personnel squabble reflects a broader struggle over the direction of the U.S. manned space exploration programs, which faces new funding and policy challenges. As an outsider to NASA, Gen. Gration was perceived as more likely than other candidates to propose potentially major changes to programs and contractor teams established years ago by the Bush Administration and supported by certain Congressional leaders and NASA's bureaucracy.

Now, the odds of Gen. Lyles eventually getting the nod seem to be increasing, as the White house considers alternatives. Some industry and government officials say Gen. Gration is still in the running.

If the decision drags on, it could strengthen the position of Sen. Nelson and others who support the current space program and the thousands of jobs it provides in Florida and elsewhere. It is bound to take any new agency head months to conduct a review of NASA's priorities, and at this point the White House doesn't appear to have settled on its own action plans. Members and staff of the House Science committee, for example, so far haven't received any indications of White House desires to move away from the rockets and space vehicles currently under development.

Sen. Nelson has publicly talked up another retired general, Charles Bolden, but his chances are considered less likely than those of the two other rivals, according to industry officials.

Recently, Gen. Lyles's name has circulated widely on Capitol Hill and his credentials have been examined by White House aides. Earlier in the decade, he was a member of a presidential commission focused on how to get astronauts back to the moon and on to Mars. Gen. Lyles also has been involved with other high-profile studies and commissions looking at space exploration and NASA's manned program.

White House officials have declined to comment, and so have NASA officials.

NASA Administrator rumors

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