Former astronaut is Trump’s pick to lead US Geological Survey

James Reilly completed five spacewalks for NASA and has a PhD in geoscience.
Astronaut James Reilly

James Reilly helped to assemble part of the International Space Station during a NASA mission in 2001.Credit: NASA

After hundreds of hours in space, former astronaut James Reilly is set to keep his eyes peeled on the US landscape. President Donald Trump will nominate Reilly to lead the US Geological Survey (USGS), the White House announced on 26 January.

Reilly is now a technical adviser for the US Air Force’s National Security Space Institute. If confirmed by the Senate, he would be the second person with a PhD in science to be nominated by Trump to lead a major science agency. (The first was Francis Collins, director of the US National Institutes of Health.)

Reilly is “pretty formidable, and a very strong presidential nominee,” says Allyson Anderson Book, executive director of the American Geosciences Institute in Alexandria, Virginia. As a former petroleum geologist, Reilly has an “excellent working knowledge” of the USGS, whose mission includes studying the country’s natural resources and the hazards that threaten it, Anderson Book says.

Reilly’s experience at NASA and his ability to work well with people will help him in the new role, says Robert Stern, a geoscientist at the University of Texas at Dallas who supervised his master’s thesis. “You can’t be an astronaut and have thin skin,” Stern says.

“I’m interested to see what [Reilly] will prioritize,” says Anderson Book, who hopes that the next USGS director will maintain the agency’s library, a one-of-a-kind collection of thousands of historical records from the USGS and from state and foreign geological surveys, scientific societies and museums. Trump has proposed cutting the US$5.8-million facility’s funding roughly in half. “Shutting it down would undermine the work of USGS,” Anderson Book says. She also wants Reilly to bolster the agency’s biology-focused programmes and activities.

Reilly earned his undergraduate, master’s and doctoral degrees in geosciences from the University of Texas at Dallas. He then worked as an oil and gas exploration geologist for Enserch Exploration in Dallas, where he helped to apply new imaging technology in deep-water engineering projects and geological research.

In 1994, NASA selected Reilly to train as an astronaut. He logged more than 853 hours in space, including 5 spacewalks, before retiring from the agency in May 2008.

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