WASHINGTON — The Florida nonprofit NASA picked last year to manage research on the international space station (ISS) is looking for a new director following a long-simmering management dispute that went public with the resignation of the group’s top executive.

Jeanne L. Becker, a veteran research scientist who took the helm of the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) six months ago, stepped down March 5 citing concerns about partnering with a consulting firm NASA hired in 2010 to develop a management concept — or reference model — for opening the U.S. portion of the space station to non-NASA research.

The consulting firm, ProOrbis LLC of Malvern, Pa., was subsequently hired by Space Florida — the state-backed economic development agency that spearheaded the creation of CASIS — to write the nonprofit’s winning NASA proposal.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden announced last July that CASIS would receive $15 million a year to “help ensure the station will be available for broad, meaningful and sustained use” by identifying and facilitating non-NASA projects promising scientific and economic returns.

Space Florida said March 5 it accepted Becker’s resignation “as a result of ongoing disputes in relation to the pace and direction of CASIS’ mission.”

Jim Royston, director of strategy and planning for CASIS, was named interim director.

Becker could not be reached for comment.

In an interview last month with Space News, Becker described an organization still in its startup phase. She said CASIS was beginning to build a database of researchers and potential funding sources and expected to issue its first research solicitation toward the end of the year. “Really, one of the goals of the organization is not only to support space station utilization but to actually bring products to life, bring products to market,” she said.

In her Feb. 29 resignation letter to Space Florida President Frank DiBello, Becker said “unrealistic expectations” levied by congressional staffers, NASA’s assistant associate administrator for ISS, Mark Uhran, and ProOrbis have made standing up the organization difficult while placing “unnecessary stress and hardship on CASIS, not only organizationally but also on management.”

But the bulk of Becker’s letter addresses what she describes as longstanding concerns that the continued involvement of ProOrbis in standing up CASIS would put the center at risk of losing its nonprofit status.

ProOrbis, according to Becker, “not only wrote the bylaws and selection protocol for establishing the CASIS permanent board of directors” but “also wrote themselves into the proposal as the prime source for CASIS organizational oversight and integration.”

That could present a problem for CASIS if the Internal Revenue Service suspects the center is being organized for ProOrbis’ financial gain — what tax lawyers call inurement — as much as for the center’s stated tax-exempt purpose, facilitating ISS research.

“The fact is that ProOrbis was recruited and paid by NASA to write the ISS National Lab Reference Model, which became the basis for the NASA Cooperative Agreement Notice soliciting for a nonprofit organization to manage the ISS National Lab,” Becker wrote DiBello. “What remains difficult to rationalize is the fact that the interim board admittedly identified inurement and excess benefit issues even as the CASIS proposal was developed.”

Becker said she first warned the center’s board — which consists of DiBello and two other Space Florida officials — in November that she would step down unless Space Florida stopped trying to carve out an ongoing role for ProOrbis in CASIS’s business operations.

“I will not put myself at legal and fiduciary risk to continue in a leadership role in this organization when the interim board continues to pursue engagement of ProOrbis, under such conditions where identified liability has been discussed, documented and reported,” she said.

“Everyone was aware that CASIS … was based on the ISS National Lab Reference Model and included a certain amount of startup support from ProOrbis,” ProOrbis spokeswoman Laura Baker said. She said Becker was among those who had signed off on Space Florida’s blueprint for CASIS.

“When we set up the organization, we knew which issues we’d have to watch. We’re well aware of the issues. We raised them to management when we came onboard,” DiBello told Space News in a March 6 interview. “There’s nothing inherently wrong with ProOrbis or the way they do business. But if you throw 90 percent of the dollars that CASIS gets to one company, whether it’s Boeing, ProOrbis or the Catholic Church, the IRS would have a problem.”

DiBello said the issues surrounding Becker’s departure went beyond a disagreement over ProOrbis’ role in standing up CASIS.

“There were a lot of longstanding issues that contributed to a crisis in confidence [in Becker’s leadership],” he said. “Not just among the board, but among key stakeholders.”

Becker has held associate director positions with other research organizations, including the NASA-funded National Space Biomedical Research Institute in Houston. She also served as chief scientist at Astrogenetix Inc., an Astrotech subsidiary preparing to use the ISS to continue salmonella vaccine research begun on the space shuttle.

“She has respect in the science community and it was deserved, but I think that this was a job that took her into a realm of dialog with other agencies, at the highest levels of NASA, with multiple factions, the financial community … different communities that were new, and I think there was some discomfort with it,” DiBello said.

DiBello said the board is confident it will find a new director soon and is looking forward to “taking CASIS to the next level.”

Meanwhile, the center’s acting director told Space News that CASIS is “doing everything we can to make sure there’s nothing there that would jeopardize that nonprofit status.

“In my opinion, ProOrbis did a great job, I think, of developing that reference model that was then used to really become the basis of what CASIS is,” Royston said in a March 5 interview. “I think as a nonprofit, and as we go out and develop relationships, there are certain legal opinions that we need to get out there and get to make sure there aren’t issues that affect the [nonprofit] status.”

A space station users conference supported by CASIS and organized by the American Astronautical Society is on tap for June in Denver.

Dan Leone is a SpaceNews staff writer, covering NASA, NOAA and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He earned a bachelor’s degree in public communications from the American University in Washington.