Other, White House

Hand off the panic button, please

A ripple of concern, bordering on panic, has been going through the commercial space community this afternoon. It started with a post on National Review Online today that named Rep. James Oberstar (D-MN), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, as a potential candidate to become Secretary of Transportation in the Obama Administration. This led some to worry, recalling that, back in late 2004, Oberstar tried to block passage of the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act (CSLAA). (He also, a few months later, introduced legislation to try and roll back some of the provisions of the CSLAA; the bill was referred to the House Science Committee, where it was never heard from again.) Commercial space advocates fear that a Secretary Oberstar could hinder the development of suborbital and orbital commercial human spaceflight through a reinterpretation of existing regulations, if nothing else.

However, before you fire off angry missives to the Obama transition team or march outside your nearest spaceport wearing a sandwich board reading “The End Is Near”, there are some things to keep in mind:

Oberstar is not the only candidate for the job. While National Review only listed Oberstar, transportation trade publication Traffic World reported this week that a number of people are being considered for the job, including Oberstar but also others ranging from Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell to New York City traffic commissioner Jeanette Sadik-Khan. And, as the article notes, “Transportation industry executives close to the Obama campaign, speaking on condition of anonymity, say it is more likely, however, that the incoming administration will seek to put a new stamp on the department through new appointments less familiar to Washington’s political establishment.” And Oberstar, who won election to his 18th term this week, is certainly part of the establishment.

Oberstar may not be interested in the job. Oberstar told Minnesota Public Radio Thursday that it’s “unlikely” he would accept the position if it was offered to him. He didn’t rule it out (and he may only be playing coy to avoid looking too interested in the position), but he said he would need a “meeting of the minds” between himself and Obama to ensure they shared the same transportation agenda.

Space would likely be a low priority for Oberstar. While people point to his opposition to the CSLAA, he has done nothing—at least of any significance—on the subject since introducing the ill-fated HR 656 back in early 2005, even after Democrats regained control of the House after the 2006 elections and elevated Oberstar to the chairmanship of the transportation committee. As Transportation Secretary, his time would likely be occupied on road and bridge infrastructure issues and air traffic control modernization. (And maybe riverboats.)

Commercial space has its advocates in, or connections with, the new administration. Recall what New Mexico governor Bill Richardson said last month: “But here’s what I want to be sure of: that the Obama Administration is pro-commercial space.” A move to change regulations in such a way that would jeopardize the state’s nearly $200 million investment in Spaceport America would not sit well with Richardson, who supported Obama in the primaries.

To be clear, Oberstar as Transportation Secretary would not be a positive development for commercial space in that he would not be an advocate for it. (Although it would be interesting to see a Sec. Oberstar show up to a Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) meeting at FAA headquarters. Awkward!) However, it’s far less certain that he would become Transportation Secretary than that initial report indicated (especially when you consider that National Review is unlikely to have any great insider contacts within the Obama team), and even if selected, would likely not devote a lot of attention to commercial space transportation given the press of all the other, much bigger, issues.

26 comments to Hand off the panic button, please

  • I second Jon’s comments. The freak out mode needs to calm down.

    Also, its worth noting – Obama has another major commerical Aerospace supporter – Patti Grace Smith.

  • [...] around that James Oberstar might be selected to head up the Department of Transportation.  As Jeff Foust helpfully points out, people are jumping the gun on this.  It’s been interesting how many people snatched at this [...]

  • MarkWhittington

    Nevertheless it’s not the time to be pollyannish. Obama hasn’t really articulated what his position on commercial space is, except that he wants to raise taxes on it and every other business enterprise. Also what are the positions on some of the other candidates for SecTrans and the FAA on regulation?

  • Well, I didn’t say, and don’t think that this is indicative of the Obama attitude toward commercial space in general. I suspect that whoever is/was considering Oberstar for the job probably has/had no idea of his history in this regard.

    But I don’t think that I was panicking. I was simply pointing out a potential problem that should be nipped in the bud, if possible. It’s a lot easier to stop it now than it would be after a formal announcement.

  • anonymous.space

    “Obama hasn’t really articulated what his position on commercial space is,”

    False. Under “Space Science and Exploration” and “Closing the Gap”, the Obama campaign’s space policy explicitely states:

    “Using the Private Sector: Obama will stimulate efforts within the private sector to develop and demonstrate spaceflight capabilities. NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services is a good model of government/industry collaboration.”

    See (add http://www):

    .spaceref.com/news/viewsr.html?pid=28880

    This is the third time this has been pointed out to you in as many threads. Please pay attention.

    “except that he wants to raise taxes on it and every other business enterprise.”

    Also false. The Obama campaign’s tax plan actually includes tax _cuts_ for small businesses generating jobs and tax credits for employers providing health care.

    It’s fine to criticize the campaign positions of the President-Elect, but let’s criticize his actual positions, not ones that we’ve made up.

    FWIW…

  • anonymous.space – you know you are hitting your head against the wall, right?

  • MarkWhittington

    Anonymous Space, that is boiler plate that doesn’t mean much of anything. I would like to know what is the new Obaam Administration’s stance toward regulatinng commercial space. Will it continue the Bush Administration policy, crack down as Oberstar advocates, or somewhere it betweewn? What about the effect of Obama tax increases on business on commercial space? Will the Obama people now hold off on those tax increases, especially now that the country is in an economic downturn? What precisely is their policy on COTS? Will they dial it back, which they might do if they decide that Orion is to become an ISS only vehicle, will they maintain the level of funding of the Bush Administration? Will they increase the funding? Will the Obama Administration expand funding for the Centenial Challenges?

    I’m sorry, but so far the Obama people have not answered these questions. Vague, boiler plate statements do not constitute answers or an over all policy position. They may satisfy people who have drunk the Obama koolaid, but not anyone who is seriously concerned about the dirtection of space policy now that the most far left, anti business administration has been elected and will govern for at least the next four years.

  • gs

    NM Gov. Bill Richardson’s endorsement was important to the Obama campaign. His state has a spaceport. His contact site is here.

    IMO getting humanity off-planet is much more important than what the EPA does, so, when an RFK Jr. is mentioned as possible EPA head, it seems worthwhile to take a moment to give the incoming administration one’s input about commercial spaceflight. I don’t want to look back with regret that I didn’t speak up.

  • MarkWhittington

    gs – Very true. One other question. If Anonymous Space is right that Obama and his people support commercial space, why is James Oberstar on the short list to be SecTrans? Jeff is right that it’s not time to panic, but it is time to at least be concerned. Another question. If the Obama people care about commercial space, are considering Oberstar not knowing about his stance on regulating commercial space, why was Oberstar not properly vetted before being put on the short list? One seems to have a binary solution set of either willing to see commercial space in the US crushed or else being incompetent. Either situation is disquieting.

  • Speaking of Obama transition and space, I can’t find anything about civil space policy at the new website.

  • gs

    MW, I look forward to knowledgeable responses to your questions.

    Barring, heaven forbid, intervention by the Four Horsemen, humanity is on its way off-planet. If the species doesn’t go on the merits, it will go because of international competition and prestige. As a member of the human race and, of course, as an American, I think it would be for the best for the US and the West to continue leading the way. But if we fumble the future, others will pick it up.

  • MarkWhittington

    Rand makes a very good point. The Obama Campaign made a big deal about their support for space (after having supported massive budget cuts for NASA.) We were told it was not a ploy to win Florida and that Obama really had an epiphany. But now Florida and the election having been won, space seems to have vanaished from the Obama agenda.

  • anonymous.space

    “Anonymous Space, that is boiler plate that doesn’t mean much of anything”

    How is an explicit statement that the Obama Administration “will stimulate efforts within the private sector to develop and demonstrate spaceflight capabilities” mere boilerplate? How is a statement that COTS is the preferred model for these activities mere boilerplate? These are substantive statements that go to whether the new Administration will support commercial space flight and how it will do so. For any company, knowing that an incoming Administration supports your industry and how the Administration intends to go about providing that support is important language. It’s highly misleading to labal such important language as mere “boilerplate”.

    Later on, the document also states that an Obama Administration “will stimulate the commercial use of space and private sector utilization of the International Space Station” and that the nation “must unleash the genius of private enterprise to secure the United States’ leadership in space”. Again, these are substantive statements about the relative importance of private space activities to the new Administration and the government markets it will make available to these companies. Again, this is hardly wishy-washy, lawyerly, boilerplate language.

    “I would like to know what is the new Obaam Administration’s stance toward regulatinng commercial space.”

    Well, if we actually bother to read the document, there are several regulatory commitments of high importance to the commercial space sector. Specifically, the document states that the Obama Administration will:

    – “direct a review of the ITAR [International Trade in Arms Regime] to reevaluate restrictions imposed on American companies, with a special focus on space hardware that is currently restricted from commercial export”,

    – “establish new processes and procurement goals to promote the use of government facilities”, and

    – “direct revisions to the licensing process to ensure that American suppliers are competitive in the international aerospace markets”.

    This language aims to remove some of the most harmful regulations that the federal government imposes on the aerospace industry and some of the highest hurdles that the government imposes on the use of federal space facilities.

    Are you having a hard time understanding the language or did you just not bother to read it?

    “Will it continue the Bush Administration policy…”

    There is no separate Bush Administration policy on “regulatinng [sic] commercial space”. The National Space Policy and National Space Transportation Policy only reiterate the regulatory roles of of the DoT, DoC, and FCC:

    See the National Space Policy here (add http://www.):

    ostp.gov/galleries/default-file/Unclassified%20National%20Space%20Policy%20–%20FINAL.pdf

    and the National Space Transportation Policy here (add http://www.):

    ostp.gov/galleries/Issues/Space_Transportation_Policy05.pdf

    The latter does have a bullet about encouraging commercial space transportation activities, including human space flight:

    “3) The Secretaries of Commerce and Transportation shall encourage, facilitate, and promote U.S. commercial space transportation activities, including commercial human space flight.”

    It’s worth noting that this Bush language is similar to the Obama “boilerplate” dismissed earlier.

    “What about the effect of Obama tax increases on business on commercial space?”

    If the definition of “commercial space” is the emergent space flight industry, then there is no tax increase. These start-up companies are not profitable, so there is nothing to tax. Moreover, if and when they do become profitable, the Obama tax policy provides tax cuts for small businesses generating jobs, so some, maybe all of them, will actually see lower tax rates if and when they do become profitable.

    I’d also note that I answered this for you already in an earlier thread. See (add http://www.):

    spacepolitics.com/2008/10/31/ex-astronauts-and-endorsements/#comments

    Did you not understand the answer the first time, or did you just not bother to read it?

    “Will they dial it [COTS] back, which they might do if they decide that Orion is to become an ISS only vehicle, will they maintain the level of funding of the Bush Administration? Will they increase the funding? Will the Obama Administration expand funding for the Centenial Challenges?”

    We’ll have to wait for the Obama Administration’s FY 2009 or FY 2010 budgets to get answers to these questions. Obama isn’t sworn in as President until the latter half of next January, and the new Administration won’t be able to amend the FY 2009 budget until March, and won’t be able to submit the FY 2010 budget until some time after that. It’s silly to ask for federal budget details three days after the President-Elect has won the election.

    “If Anonymous Space is right that Obama and his people support commercial space”

    No one can read minds — we’ll never know if any President or his staff, in their heart of hearts, really cares about issue X or program Y. And honestly, it doesn’t matter.

    What matters are commitments and results. If we bother to actually read the Obama campaign’s statements and policies, it’s clear that they made a number of important and positive commitments to the space industry, and commercial space flight in particular. We’ll see if the Obama Administration delivers on the Obama campaign’s promises. (There’s actually some Obama campaign commitments in related areas, like extending Shuttle operations, that I would like to see them not deliver on.) But to repeatedly claim that these commitments don’t exist or that they’re mere boilerplate is either a bald-faced lie or a demonstration of extreme ignorance.

    “why is James Oberstar on the short list to be SecTrans… why was Oberstar not properly vetted before being put on the short list”

    What “short list”? There’s a rumor that Oberstar might be a nominee for Transportation Secretary. There is no confirmation of that rumor, and there is no list (short or long, confirmed or unconfirmed) of other potential nominees for DoT Secretary.

    And what “vetting”? The election ended only three days ago, and there are numerous other Cabinet and White House personnel decisions that are much more important and pressing (Treasury, Defense, etc.). It’s highly doubtful that there’s been any vetting at all of any candidates for Transportation Secretary.

    “But now Florida and the election having been won, space seems to have vanaished from the Obama agenda.”

    We should not conclude that space has “vanaished [sic] from the Obama agenda” because a link doesn’t show up on a transition website a lousy three days after the election. That’s fallacious thinking in the extreme. (And, FWIW, there actually is an historical reference to the Cold War space race in the “Additional Issues” section.)

    “I’m sorry, but so far the Obama people have not answered these questions.”

    With the exception of specific budget details, which will have to wait until we actually have a new President, the Obama campaign documents do answer your questions. You just prefer to ignore the answers or are having a hard time understanding them, despite repeated attempts on this website to reference, quote, and explain them to you.

    Please, please try actually reading and comprehending the campaign’s space policy for once so other posters don’t have to repeatedly correct the same ill-informed statements in your posts for the umpteenth time.

    Ugh…

  • anonymous.space

    “anonymous.space – you know you are hitting your head against the wall, right?”

    Yes, I do. But I still think it’s necessary to get documented facts straight before engaging in debates about policy opinions.

    Now that he’s our President-Elect, I would very much like to debate the pros and cons of the Obama campaign’s civil space commitments. I think there are some major cons (Shuttle extension, earlier commitments to Ares I/Orion). But I can’t do that when the thread is littered with statements that are false on their face about what the Obama campaign actually committed to on paper.

    FWIW…

  • Jeff Foust

    Speaking of Obama transition and space, I can’t find anything about civil space policy at the new website.

    It appears that, at least for the time being, the content of the “Agenda” section of Change.gov is essentially the same as the “Issues” section of BarackObama.com. The latter site, for whatever reason, never updated its content to reflect the space policy paper issued by the campaign in mid-August, so that would explain why it’s not on Change.gov yet. Maybe someone with connections to the transition team will read this and take the hint…

  • Jeff Foust

    But I don’t think that I was panicking. I was simply pointing out a potential problem that should be nipped in the bud, if possible.

    Actually, I don’t think what Rand and Clark posted qualified as “panicking”, but there were a lot more hyperbolic comments out there.

    Here’s one other thing to keep in mind: for the time being, it appears that Oberstar’s interest in commercial human spaceflight has at least gone dormant. Perhaps, though, he might become interested again in a few years, such as when companies like Virgin Galactic, XCOR, and Armadillo start flying paying customers. Where could Oberstar do the most harm to the industry: as Secretary of Transportation, where he would try to create or interpret regulations but would be bound by existing law; or in his current role as chairman of the House transportation committee, where he could hold hearings and help push through new legislation (although he’d need the cooperation of the Senate on the latter)?

  • anonymous.space

    “it appears that Oberstar’s interest in commercial human spaceflight has at least gone dormant.”

    I’m just guessing, but it wouldn’t surprise me to find out that Oberstar’s prior attempts to legislate heavier regulations on the industry were driven by a member of his staff, who may be gone by now and/or would not follow Oberstar to DoT.

    “Perhaps, though, he might become interested again in a few years, such as when companies like Virgin Galactic, XCOR, and Armadillo start flying paying customers.”

    The biggest threat to the emergent commercial human space flight industry is a flight accident that results in a customer fatality. Once that happens, and it will sooner or later, the regulatory gates will come down much harder than Oberstar or any other legislator or regulator could bring them down before such an accident. That’s the inevitable regulatory event that the industry needs to prepare itself for more than any other.

    “Where could Oberstar do the most harm to the industry: as Secretary of Transportation, where he would try to create or interpret regulations but would be bound by existing law; or in his current role as chairman of the House transportation committee, where he could hold hearings and help push through new legislation”

    Obviously the latter.

    It’s also worth noting that at least one leading representative of the industry, Burt Rutan, has actually argued that the industry needs to be more heavily regulated to protect itself from potentially devastating lawsuits. Although I don’t agree with his position, he speaks from prior lawsuit experience in this area that most of us (myself included) don’t have.

    FWIW…

  • Actually, it occurs to me that we should be urging the incoming administration to undo the Clinton policy of having AST within the FAA, and restore it to OCST, an office reporting directly to the Secretary. This would make it easier to maintain the dual role of both regulating and promoting, and give the administrator more clout.

  • Where could Oberstar do the most harm to the industry: as Secretary of Transportation, where he would try to create or interpret regulations but would be bound by existing law; or in his current role as chairman of the House transportation committee, where he could hold hearings and help push through new legislation (although he’d need the cooperation of the Senate on the latter)?

    Do we have to have a choice? I’d do whatever is in my power to make it none of the above. Get him a new committee assignment, as well as not make him SECDOT.

  • Jeff Foust

    Do we have to have a choice?

    Yes, probably. If he’s not selected to become Transportation Secretary, he’d remain chairman of the House T&I Committee. He has lots of seniority and no one publicly willing to challenge him–and certainly not using a relatively minor issue like this to do so.

  • I certainly wouldn’t expect him to be ousted over this issue, by anyone. It was more of a hope that he might find a more interesting assignment than a strategy. And it still seems like frying pan/fire to me.

  • [...] Hand off the panic button, please – Space Politics [...]

  • [...] all that concern that Congressman James Oberstar might become Secretary of Transportation in the Obama Administration? Oberstar became infamous in commercial space circles four years ago when he attempted to block [...]

  • [...] Obama administration mean to Commercial Space?  A look into who was voted in, and what it means.  Jeff Foust at Space Politics Category : [...]

  • [...] entered circulation a year ago as a potential Secretary of Transportation, I noted at the time that space had not been a priority for him for several years, since an abortive effort in early 2005 to roll back some of the provisions of the CSLAA. [...]

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