Trump names insider to lead NASA landing team

The transition team for U.S. President-elect Donald Trump has named a congressional staffer and former NASA official to  lead the “landing team” overseeing transition planning for the space agency.

Chris Shank. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Chris Shank. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

In a Nov. 29 statement, the office of President-elect Trump announced that Chris Shank will serve on the landing team for NASA, the first individual named to date to handle transition issues for the space agency. The selection came after the transition team selected several dozen other people to serve on landing teams for cabinet-level departments and other agencies.

Shank has extensive experience with NASA, both working in the agency itself as well as on Capitol Hill. He joins the transition team after serving as policy director for the House Science Committee and, before that, as deputy chief of staff for Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the chairman of the committee. Shank also served on the committee’s staff from 2001 to 2005.

Shank worked for NASA from 2005 to 2009, during the tenure of administrator Mike Griffin. At NASA, he was director of strategic investments, responsible for the development of the agency’s budget. He also led the agency’s office of strategic communications, working on legislative affairs and public outreach. After leaving NASA, he briefly worked for the Applied Physical Laboratory and Honeywell before returning to Congress.

As part of the incoming administration’s landing team for NASA, Shank will get access to agency information and personnel to guide overall transition efforts. Traditionally, new administrations name several people to transition teams for NASA, suggesting that others will join him in the coming weeks.

Shank was on the agency side of the transition process eight years ago, when he was at NASA while the incoming Obama administration brought its transition team into the agency, which included future NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver.

“In a transition period, folks need to maintain their integrity, and be forthcoming,” Shank advised in a panel session on space policy at the American Astronautical Society’s Goddard Memorial Symposium in March that also featured Garver, who argued that NASA was in fact not that forthcoming during the transition after the 2008 election.

While the Trump transition office publically announced the appointment Nov. 29, NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot said late that day that the agency had not yet received formal notification.

“We expect to finally get an agency review team into place,” Lightfoot said, referring to the formal name for a landing team, in an interview prior to accepting an award on NASA’s behalf by the Arthur C. Clarke Foundation here. “We’re working on, basically, telling the story of what we’re going to be doing.”

The transition has not caused any major issues for NASA so far, despite the delay in getting a landing team in place for the incoming administration. “It’s business as usual for us right now,” Lightfoot said, citing work on various agency programs. “When the review team gets in place, we’ll have our time with them and get a chance to see what they’re thinking, but also share the message of what we’re doing.”

Immediately after Trump won the Nov. 8 election, sources suggested that Mark Albrecht, former executive secretary of the National Space Council and, later, president of International Launch Services, would be named to lead the NASA transition for the president-elect. Instead, the Trump transition team named Albrecht Nov. 29 to the Department of Defense landing team, which now numbers more than a dozen people.