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.