In May, President Obama nominated Tom Wheeler to become the next chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). While he has yet to be formally confirmed by the Senate, he did breeze through a confirmation hearing by a “generally welcoming” Senate Commerce Committee in June, and his nomination has broad support.
It also turns out he has—or, at least, had—opinions about the administration’s space policy. In a May 2010 blog post, Wheeler, working in the private sector at the time, said the “Space Program” (as he capitalized it) was going through an “analog to digital conversion” analogous to what the telecommunications industry experienced in the past. His reference was not to specific technologies but instead models of doing business and innovation: a shift from a centralized to distributed approach.
“NASA was the Bell Labs of Space,” he wrote. “Like Bell Labs they delivered important innovations and added to our national pride. To continue a 20th Century command-and-control model in an era of distributed development is not in the best interest of NASA, however.”
In particular, he expressed support for the administration’s decision to pursue development of commercial crew transportation systems. “Embracing commercial manned launches will not only save the taxpayer dollars, but also will put Americans back in space sooner by using enhanced versions of existing launch vehicles,” he wrote. “Best of all, embracing commercial low earth orbit manned flight will allow NASA to focus on moving the edge of the envelope further out into space, including with manned missions.” These are many of the same arguments the White House and NASA leadership have made for commercial crew development. (Wheeler, in fact, served on the Obama transition team after the 2008 election, and his policy portfolio included both technology and space.)
As for those opposed to commercial crew, he sees similar arguments to debates from telecommunications deregulation. “Back in the original analog-to-digital days I can remember AT&T’s representatives warning of catastrophic job losses and damage to the national security if innovative competitors were allowed into their business. The same echoes surround the proposed NASA changes,” he wrote. “The earlier warnings not only failed to materialize, but just the opposite occurred as new, innovative and less expensive services came forward and economic growth and a new generation of jobs exploded.”
Assuming Wheeler is confirmed, his space policy comments will largely be of academic interest. There are, though, a few space-related topics the FCC deals with, such as orbital slot and frequency assignments for commercial satellites and other space operations. (The FCC did issue a notice of proposed rulemaking in May on frequency allocation and related issues for commercial launches, for example.) If those activities do grow in the next few years, particularly in emerging areas like small satellites or commercial crew, it will be interesting to see if these thoughts play any role in decisions the FCC makes on related policies.