Congress, NASA, White House

Another NASA administrator candidate blocked? Maybe

The Orlando Sentinel reports this afternoon that Sen. Bill Nelson and some colleagues have “taken down” the potential nomination of Steve Isakowitz as NASA administrator before the former NASA comptroller could even be formally nominated. Nelson and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison reportedly opposed the proposed nomination because of Isakowitz’s role, as CFO of the Department of Energy, in the decision to cancel the “FutureGen” clean coal demonstration power plant because of serious overruns—only to discover a $500-million overestimate in the cost estimates that led to that cancellation decision. (Another senator, David Vitter, was also originally considered part of the group opposed to Isakowitz, but his office later denied any role in blocking any nomination.)

A couple things to keep in mind here. One, while Isakowitz was designated the frontrunner when his name came up two weeks ago, there was no consensus if that was really the case—or even if he was really being seriously considered by the administration. Second, while the article states that “people close to Nelson” now consider Charles Bolden as “a shoo-in” for the position, it’s clear now that, if true, he would be far from the administration’s first choice, which leads one to wonder about the dynamics of the relationship between Sen. Nelson and the White House. And then there’s Lester Lyles, who apparently has been neither endorsed nor “taken out” yet by Nelson. Lyles spoke at the Goodard Memorial Symposium earlier this week but (according to people I talked with who attended the meeting) avoided any discussion of the NASA job.

8 comments to Another NASA administrator candidate blocked? Maybe

  • Sheesh. If there’s even an element of truth to the story, then Nelson comes off looking like a real Grade-A selfish jerk. Next time he’s up for reelection remind me to donate to his opponent.


  • MarkWhittington

    Actually Bill Nelson is behaving just like any other politician does when he senses that the POTUS can be rolled. One doubts that the folks in Florida feel very bad about Nelson protecting their interests.

  • Major Tom

    “Actually Bill Nelson is behaving just like any other politician does when he senses that the POTUS can be rolled.”

    No, if the Orlando Sentinel blurb is true, Nelson’s actions are much worse than that. The article does not mention the important context that Bill Nelson and Charlie Bolden are old friends going back to their training for the STS-61 Shuttle flight.

    “One doubts that the folks in Florida feel very bad about Nelson protecting their interests.”

    It’s one thing to block good nominees and hurt national programs in favor of parochial interests. It’s another to block good nominees and hurt national programs in favor of personal interests so that your buddy can get into office. That’s about as bad an abuse of congressional power as can be had without stepping over a criminal line and appointing family members or lining one’s own pockets at public expense.

    (And the excuse for turning down Isakowitz — that he’s a tough fiscal manager — is also an incredibly sad and lame abuse of the public trust.)

    This episode smacks very much of a return to George Abbey’s astronaut management club/old boys network, which bodes very poorly for NASA’s leadership. Bolden was also George Abbey’s right-hand at JSC, and Isakowitz was one of the White House staffers responsible for forcing Goldin to fire Abbey after Abbey’s $5 billion ISS overrun at the beginning of the Bush II Administration. Unless Bolden can keep Nelson at arms-length (which appears highly unlikely) and think independently of Abbey (see the recent Abbey/Lane memo), NASA’s human space flight program runs a high chance of getting its clock set back to the days before X-33, with a flawed Shuttle flying for years to come and no viable Shuttle alternative or human space flight plans in sight. (And all that continuing to fly Shuttle implies for NASA’s budget in a tough fiscal environment and ISS support in the event of another Shuttle accident…)

    (Of course, thanks to Griffin, the agency will lack a viable Shuttle alternative or human space flight plans for years to come, anyway, so this is also arguably just a reinforcement of the status quo.)

    One potential silver lining is that the Sentinel article did not quote any White House sources, and Obama has recently stated that he will task his new Administrator with rethinking NASA’s direction — a task that matches Isakowitz’s background and not Bolden’s. It’s possible that the Sentinel’s congressional sources are all sound and fury and do not reflect the White House’s actual thinking or position.

    Here’s hoping… FWIW…

  • MarkWhittington

    Nelson may be guilty of all of those things, but only because Obama is letting him do it. The one thing Obama could do to prove he isn’t afraid of Nelson is to nominate whom he pleases and dare Nelson to block him. That he hasn’t done so speaks volumes.

  • Doug Lassiter

    Nelson is the Chairman of the Space Subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee, the upper chamber body that authorizes NASA’s efforts. If Obama lets Nelson do this, it would just mean that Obama respects this committee as representing congressional wisdom about NASA. You can decide for yourself whether this wisdom is any good. Most of Congress thinks it is.

    The NASA administrator will regularly testify before Nelson’s subcommittee. So why would Obama want to pick a fight with someone who could make life absolutely miserable for his NASA administrator? That’s not a fight worth having. If Nelson really doesn’t approve of Isakowitz for this job, and if Obama doesn’t choose Isakowitz for this reason, it indeed speaks volumes about a President who knows how to manage, and can make political sacrifices in the interest of getting a job done.

    If Obama is going to stick with Bush’s VSE, I suppose he doesn’t need Nelson that much. But if he’s going to revise the direction of NASA to his liking, and most indications are that this will happen, he’ll need a new vision authorized to get very far, and Nelson is a critical player to ensure that happens, as well as KBH.

    Yes, Isakowitz would seem like an excellent choice for NASA administrator, but let’s not get fixated on the unfairness of politics. That unfairness, in this case, may well cost the nation some money, but it could grease the skids that might otherwise slow or jam up the whole effort. This isn’t about people being afraid of other people or daring people to block things, which is usually unconstructive.

  • Dave Huntsman

    Major Tom –

    Completely agree with every word you said. (Please don’t take it personally).

  • Let me see…during the campaign, Obama said he didn’t mind if his tax plans put coal plants out of business. Now, Isakowitz is being blocked in Congress because he axed a clean coal demonstration project. Does anyone else see the irony?

    Getting more Abbey-inspired NASA drek is just the thing to screw up my day. But it also reminds me of how sensible it was to (re)state the following in the Friday issue of “The Lurio Report,” Vol4 No.4 ():

    “Spaceflight is clearly still trapped by the realities of Washington: Without the large industries that would result from practical cost and reliability, NASA is of zero priority for positive change. The policy needed for such change would have to result from (and _be implemented_ with) an effort that recognizes the real future contributions that spaceflight can make to the economy. The default case is letting NASA continue to run on a model based on leftover cold war momentum; the major ‘practical products’ of that are pork for Congressional districts and hugely inflated prices for all Agency objectives.
    “So, it’s clearly been too long since I repeated my bottom-line position that while it would be great if Washington’s actions helped advance the advent of practical spaceflight, what counts most is that it not _prevent_ that result by erecting barriers to it, whether directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally.”

  • […] one believes the conventional wisdom, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) has effectively blocked the potential nominations of Scott Gration and Steve Isakowitz to be NASA ad… for one reason or another. If true, that makes a comment that Nelson told the Washington Post in an […]

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