Astronaut Don Thomas brings star power to Case Western Reserve campus Feb. 17-18

Astronaut and Northeast Ohio native Don Thomas is coming home this week, back to the Case Western Reserve University campus where he said his space career really took off.

Thomas is a four-time Shuttle mission specialist who spent 44 days in space in the 1990s, completing nearly 700 orbits of the Earth and traveling 17.6 million miles. He became one among only four astronauts to fly aboard the Shuttle Columbia three times and was a member of the 1995 “All-Ohio Mission” (which he wrote about in his book Orbit of Discovery).

Don Thomas during his undergraduate years in the College of Arts and Sciences at Case Western Reserve University. (Photo Courtesy of Don Thomas)

“I had been dreaming about going to space since I was 6 years old, but my career as an astronaut really started at Case Western Reserve University,” he said. “What I learned there—the discipline, the study habits, the connections I made—prepared me for everything else that was to come. I was ready for any challenge.”

One of those early challenges: a series of rejections before finally being accepted into the NASA space program on his fourth try. After receiving advanced degrees in materials science from Cornell University, he took jobs at AT&T and Lockheed Martin Corp., but always kept his eye on the sky.

“I still had that dream from when I was a child, so I just kept at it,” Thomas said. “You can’t underestimate that, and so that’s my No. 1 message and the most important lesson I’ve learned in my life: ‘Don’t give up.’”

Thomas grew up in Independence, but eventually moved and graduated from Cleveland Heights High School in 1973. He then graduated with honors from the College of Arts and Sciences at Case Western Reserve in 1977, majoring in physics with a minor in anthropology.

He received his master’s and doctorate in materials science from Cornell University in 1980 and 1982, respectively.

He said that story of persistence will be a large part of his keynote address at a reception from 5-8 p.m. today (Monday, Feb. 17) in Thwing Center Ballroom. His talk officially launches the Case School of Engineering’s annual Engineers Week.

“I’ll also share a bit of what it’s like to be in space, including some pictures of Earth,” Thomas said. “It changes every astronaut to look out the window. You see how paper-thin our atmosphere is, how fragile our planet is and you gain a more global perspective.”

People can register for the Monday reception online. It is free and open to the public, but registration is required.

‘Moon shot’ symposium Tuesday

Astronaut Don Thomas in front of a shuttle in hangar. (Photo courtesy of Don Thomas)

Thomas will also share the stage Tuesday from 1-5 p.m. at the Tinkham Veale University Center Ballroom for a “Moon Shot” symposium with newly appointed NASA Glenn Director Marla Perez-Davis and Jeffrey Isaacson, president and CEO of Universities Space Research Association, a nonprofit research corporation that leverages “university-based expertise to advance space science and technology.”

People can register for the symposium online at the Case Alumni Association website. The event commemorates the “legacy of John F. Kennedy and the Apollo Program.” This event is also free and open to the public.

At 2:15 p.m., Thomas will present “How Kennedy’s Moonshot Opened the Door for My Trips to Space.”

At 3 p.m., four Case Western Reserve research thought leaders will talk about the next “moon shots” in different areas of human endeavor:

  • Human Health: Anant Madabhushi, F. Alex Nason Professor II of Biomedical Engineering, Case School of Engineering, Computational Imaging and Artificial Intelligence for Precision Medicine
  • Applied Data Science: Roger French, Kyocera Professor of Ceramics, Case School of Engineering
  • Energy/Environment: Burcu Gurkan, Nord Distinguished Assistant Professor, Case School of Engineering, “Carbon Capture and Energy Storage for the Environment and Space Exploration”
  •  Human-Technology Interface: Dustin Tyler, Kent H. Smith II Professor of Biomedical Engineering, Case School of Engineering

E-Week: an annual celebration

The annual Engineers Week is coordinated by The Case Engineers Council (CEC), a student group, to “celebrate and raise public understanding and appreciation of engineers’ contributions to society.”

DiscoverE, the national organizer of E-Week, is a formal coalition of more than 100 professional societies, major corporations and government agencies.

“E-Week is a celebration of all things engineering and a chance for our students, who plan and run this event, to share their passion for engineering with their peers across campus,” said Venkataramanan “Ragu” Balakrishnan, the Charles H. Phipps Dean of the Case School of Engineering.

photo of Venkataramanan "Ragu" Balakrishnan, the Charles H. Phipps Dean of the Case School of Engineering.
Venkataramanan “Ragu” Balakrishnan, the Charles H. Phipps Dean of the Case School of Engineering

“We look forward to welcoming students, faculty and staff from across campus to this year’s E-Week reception. We are incredibly fortunate this year to be joined by Don Thomas, who will share his journey from Cleveland to NASA and, eventually, space. It promises to be an inspirational evening you won’t want to miss.”

Other E-Week events include a Tuesday night trivia contest at the Jolly Scholar; an evening sponsored by Phi Sigma Rho on Feb. 23, when students can modify toys for kids with disabilities; and more.

See a list of all events and activities planned for Engineers Week.


For more information, contact Mike Scott at mike.scott@case.edu