President Donald Trump plans to nominate James Reilly, a former NASA astronaut and exploration geologist, to lead the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the White House announced today. If confirmed, the 63-year-old Reilly would lead a science agency whose researchers monitor for earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, among a host of other duties.
According to an interview from several years ago, Reilly first applied to be an astronaut in the 1980s. Working full-time as an exploration geologist for Enserch Exploration, an oil-and-gas company based in Dallas, Texas, Reilly eventually earned his doctorate in the geosciences in 1995 from the University of Texas in Dallas.
The degree apparently brought his academic credentials up to NASA’s standards, and the agency selected him to be an astronaut candidate in 1994. Reilly eventually flew on three Space Shuttle missions, logging 856 hours in space, including five spacewalks. Like many of his peers at the time, his work largely focused on assembling the International Space Station. He retired from NASA in 2008 and has since had stints in the private sector, including serving as a senior administrator for the American Public University System, a for-profit online university started in the 1990s. Reilly currently serves as a technical adviser on space operations at the U.S. Air Force’s National Security Space Institute in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
A bureau of the Department of the Interior, USGS has a budget of $1.1 billion and a mandate that includes oversight of the Earth-observing Landsat satellites. Last year, the Trump administration sought to cut its 2018 budget by 15%, targeting programs focused on climate change as well as initiatives in earthquake early warning and volcanic hazard monitoring, among others. Congressional appropriators have pushed back on those cuts, but the 2018 budget is still pending.
If confirmed, Reilly would report to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who has drawn scorn from environmentalists for his moves to open up most of the country’s coasts to offshore oil-and-gas drilling. Although USGS has largely stayed out of news during Zinke’s tenure, the agency drew criticism late last year for dramatically reducing the number of scientific employees who could travel to the principal annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union, the premiere gathering of geoscientists.