— With retired U.S Air Force Maj. Gen. Scott Gration now officially out of the running for NASA administrator, a bi-partisan coalition of space advocates is rallying behind another candidate they say is being mischaracterized by opponents on Capitol Hill.

U.S. President BarackObama’s transition team had floated Gration’s name in January as the likely nominee to be NASA chief, but members of Congress balked at his lack of space experience. Obama announced March 18 that Gration would be his special envoy for

Sources said the new front runner for NASA administrator is Steve Isakowitz, chief financial officer of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and former NASA comptroller and deputy associate administrator of exploration systems. But Isakowitz also faces opposition from lawmakers following a Feb. 13 U.S. Government Accountability Office report critical of budget analyses used to justify the restructuring of a DOE clean- coal power plant demonstration project called Future Gen.

Obama said March 11 that he would appoint a NASA chief “soon,” but the process stalled amid concern that Isakowitz was to blame for DOE estimates that Future Gen costs had doubled, which led to a restructuring of the program. Future Gen costs had increased by 39 percent, the report said.

Opponents also have characterized Isakowitz as a budgeter who lacks interest in human spaceflight.

Former colleagues defended Isakowitz, saying he is the type of leader NASA needs to steer the agency through difficult fiscal times and through the transition from the space shuttle to the next astronaut-carrying vehicle aimed at eventually returning Americans to the Moon.

“He doesn’t have an ideological ax to grind at all, he’s very creative, he’s obviously brilliant, but he doesn’t come in with a lot of bias,” said Jim Muncy, a former congressional staffer who worked with Isakowitz when he was at NASA. “He’s a good analyst and clearly a good manager because he’s inspired a lot of people around him.”

said Isakowitz was not involved with the Future Gen decision or inaccurate cost estimates. Isakowitz, who became DOE’s chief financial officer in June 2007 amid concerns about Future Gen’s escalating costs, became involved after the decision to restructure the program had been made, and DOE refused his offer to conduct an independent cost analysis, Muncy said.

Brett Alexander, president of the Personal Spaceflight Federation, an advocacy group here, said Isakowitz has support from the science and human spaceflight community.

“A lot of us feel he is the right kind of person at the right time,” he said. “He is a strong supporter of human spaceflight.”

Mark Albrecht, executive secretary of White House National Space Council from 1989 to 1992 under then-President George H.W. Bush, said he joined the loosely formed coalition of Isakowitz supporters because Isakowitz is qualified to lead NASA through these challenging times.

“There are numerous potential candidates who for one reason or another would be a good NASA administrator, but recognizing [Obama] may have already focused on Steve and that he would be a good choice, we’re supporting the president’s choice,” he said.

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

Michael Coats, director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, said during a March 19 Space Transportation Association breakfast that the uncertainty over NASA’s future was “driving folks crazy” and that people do not have a clear sense yet of the direction Obama’s space policy will take.

“I know Chris Scolese, the acting administrator, is reluctant to make anything that might be perceived as policy decisions, and yet it’s very hard when you’re running an agency to make a decision that isn’t perceived as policy in some way. So Chris is kind of in a tough spot, he’s doing a great job…but he needs some help over there,” Coats said. “We’re trying to do everything we can at the centers to support him but it would help if he could have an administrator and a deputy administrator and some direction.”

A day earlier, 14 members of the U.S. House of Representatives from
– all of which host major NASA facilities – sent a letter to Obama March 18 urging the president to make a decision. The letter stressed the importance of leadership given the planned 2010 retirement date for the space shuttle and the looming five-year gap until NASA fields its next generation astronaut-carrying rocket.

“As you know, this issue is linked to our economic recovery since the gap could result in layoffs for several thousand highly skilled aerospace engineers and technicians over the next two years,” the letter said. “We urge you to keep these issues in mind as you search for a NASA administrator candidate with the right background, integrity and focus on minimizing the spaceflight gap and preserving the agency’s cutting edge science and aeronautics programs.”

supporters said they are concerned that if Obama does not choose Isakowitz, the lengthy process of vetting candidates will have to restart, which could leave NASA without an administrator for another three months.

“We could be back to square one, and I don’t think that’s good for anybody, particularly shuttle and work force issues,” Alexander said.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), who chairs the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on commerce, justice and science, which oversees NASA’s budget, told a group of 600 gathered at the Maryland Space Business Roundtable March 16 that she is disappointed that NASA does not yet have an administrator.

“We’ve met with the transition teams, vetting teams – I’m ready to meet with the
basketball team,” Mikulski joked. “So when the president makes his nomination I want it to be a three- pointer. And like
, you know you can count on the women’s team to make sure we’re in the finals.”

Mikulski would not comment on prospective candidates, but said the NASA chief must meet with her and be a strong manager and not a “Johnnie-one-note or a Janie-one-note that’s going to back any one part of the program.”

“What is a balanced space program? A commitment to human spaceflight, a commitment to science – Earth, space, solar, the universe – aeronautics and to education. You must support the president’s agenda,” the senator said. “That’s my criteria.”

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), chairman of the Senate Commerce subcommittee on science and space that would preside over the initial confirmation hearing for the NASA administrator nominee, has endorsed former NASA astronaut and retired U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Charlie Bolden. Nelson flew once on the shuttle and Bolden was the pilot on that mission. Shortly after Gration was reported to be Obama’s top pick, Nelson issued a statement saying he wants NASA’s top official to have the knowledge and experience of former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin, an aerospace engineer who worked in the aerospace industry for more than three decades.
departed NASA in January.

An aide to Nelson send the senator “sees Charlie Bolden as an individual who sees the agency 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 felt that individual would have that global view of NASA.”