Chao Punts on Whether Commercial Space Should be Restored to DOT Secretary's Office

Chao Punts on Whether Commercial Space Should be Restored to DOT Secretary's Office

During her confirmation hearing yesterday, Secretary of Transportation-designate Elaine Chao punted on a question from Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) about whether the Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) should be restored to the Secretary’s office instead of being subordinate to the FAA.

President-elect Trump has announced his intention to nominate Chao to be Secretary of Transportation. Her confirmation hearing was held before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee yesterday.  Chao was Deputy Secretary of Transportation during part of the George H.W. Bush Administration and Secretary of Labor under President George W. Bush.   She also was Deputy Administrator of DOT’s Maritime Administration and chairwoman of the Federal Maritime Commission.  Among her other career achievements, she was President and CEO of United Way of America and Director of the Peace Corps.  Most recently she has been a Distinguished Fellow at the Heritage Foundation.  She is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who introduced her at the hearing along with fellow Kentucky Senator Rand Paul.

The preponderance of questions were on other aspects of DOT’s broad responsibilities, such as privatization of air traffic control, drones, the Maritime Administration, freight delivery by railroads, commuter rail, highway safety, and infrastructure investments for airports, highways, and railways.

Cruz was the only Senator who asked about DOT’s space-related activities.  He chairs the Space, Science and Competitiveness Subcommittee.  During the last Congress, he was one of the Senate leaders in passing the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (CSLCA). 

At the hearing, he stated that CSLCA “directs the department to look at moving the Office of Commercial Space Transportation back under the secretary” and asked if she would support such a move to create “an environment where commercial space launch can thrive”.  He noted that it was part of the Secretary’s office when she was Deputy Secretary in the early 1990s.

Chao clearly was unprepared for the question, though that seemed to be true throughout the hearing.  In this case, she thanked Cruz for bringing the matter to her attention and said she looked forward “to getting briefed on the current status of this issue.”  He replied that he looked forward to working with her on the issue.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) reminded Cruz that he had been an author of the original commercial space launch legislation in the 1980s (when he was a member of the House), but did not ask Chao any questions about her plans for commercial space.

President Ronald Reagan assigned DOT responsibility for facilitating and regulating the commercial space launch industry in 1983 through an Executive Order. Congress followed with the 1984 Commercial Space Launch Act, which has been amended several times since.  Initially, the Office of Commercial Space Transportation was part of the Secretary’s office, but was transferred to the FAA in November 1995.  Commercial space launch advocates have argued for many years that it should be restored to the Secretary’s office to get the visibility and resources it needs.

Those resource requirements could grow substantially if AST’s role is expanded along the lines of recent discussions.  Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), for example, is a champion for making AST responsible for providing Space Situational Awareness data and conjunction analyses to non-military entities, and regulating in-space activities such as asteroid mining in addition to its current roles in regulating launch and reentry.

Bridenstine just began his third term in Congress, but is widely rumored to be the Trump transition team’s top choice for NASA Administrator.  No such announcement has been made yet.

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