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Four Candidates Top NASA List, Says Obama

Who will be the next NASA chief? Speculation has been rife for months about who will replace Michael Griffin as the space agency administrator. Yesterday, U.S. President Barack Obama did little to dampen speculation.

Stumping in Florida for his stimulus package, Obama told several lawmakers that there are four finalists for the job—but he didn't say who was on the list or when he would announce the decision. Names bandied about in the Washington rumor mill include Lester Lyles and Scott Gration—both retired Air Force generals—as well as Charles Kennel, a California earth scientist who once held a senior NASA job.

The Orlando Sentinel reported that while in Florida, Obama assured Representative Suzanne Kosmas (D-Fl)—whose district includes NASA's Kennedy Space Center—that he supports human space flight. Today, at his Senate confirmation hearing to head the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, John Holdren reiterated that message by declaring that "space is a priority" and that any cuts in the space program "would be a false economy." Holdren told members of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation that a strong space program was crucial to national defense, weather forecasting, earth observation, and meeting a slew of other societal needs and that "investments in space are a bargain." He also repeated the president's promise to create a National Space Council to coordinate Administration policy.

Obama must soon decide whether the new NASA chief gets the green light to proceed with a novel launcher to replace the space shuttle by 2015. And with the shuttle slated to stop flying next year, whether to close that gap by extending shuttle operations is another of several major space issues confronting Obama's White House.