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Nifty Fifty – Bring a Top Scientist to your Middle or High School

Dr. Donald A.Thomas

Years Participated: Nifty Fifty 2010, Nifty Fifty 2012

Nominated by

Don Thomas Towson2

A NASA Astronaut Takes on the Job of His Life – Helping to Motivate the Next Generation of Young Scientists 

No question about it – being a NASA astronaut gets you involved in some cool, heady stuff.

Selected in 1990 as a member of NASA’s 13th group of astronauts, Don Thomas went on to fly as a mission specialist on four different Space Shuttle missions (three on Columbia and one on Discovery flights), logging 44 days in space, completing nearly 700 orbits of the Earth and traveling some 20 million miles.

Don will never forget the experience, including traveling 150 miles above the Earth and looking down on the beauty and glory of the Amazon Rainforest, the summit of Mount Everest, and the Great Barrier Reef.

“Ever since I was six years old,” confesses Don, who served as an astronaut between 1994 and 1997, “I had dreamed of going into space. I consider myself very fortunate to have had the opportunity to fly in space and achieve one of my childhood dreams.” He adds: “Being an astronaut is a very challenging and demanding job, but also tremendously fun.” And although astronauts may train up to two years for each mission, “nothing quite prepares you for launch,” Don admits. “It's the roughest phase of the mission…There's a lot of vibration. You're sitting on half a million gallons of highly explosive fuel. So many things can go wrong."

But now Don is pursuing another mission which is close to his heart (and which will arguably have even more lasting impact than his space travel): attracting more young students to the STEM disciplines – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – and to help them remain there. To this end, in 2007 Don joined Towson University’s newly-formed Hackerman Academy of Mathematics and Science, an innovative outreach program that he directs and which is aimed at motivating elementary, middle, and high school students across Maryland in careers in math and science.

In his new venture, Don has not forgotten the important role teachers play in this equation. He is also working on interesting ways to excite and motivate teachers to teach STEM disciplines in area schools. “A lot of astronauts often struggle with what they're going to do when they leave the space program, says Don, who, served three years as Program Scientist for the International Space Station before joining the Hackerman Academy, located on the campus of Towson University, Maryland’s second largest public university.”But I knew I wanted to go to a university and help the next generation of scientists, engineers and teachers. I hope to bring my experiences working as an astronaut and scientist to inspire and motivate others through the Hackerman Academy.”

Growing up in Cleveland, OH, Don was in kindergarten when the first American went up in space: May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard on top of a Redstone rocket. Don remembers watching the historic liftoff with other kids on a black-and-white TV in the school cafeteria. "That event had a huge impact on my life. I was 6 years old. I don't know anything, but I knew I wanted to do that." He adds, "Statistically speaking, I shouldn't have made it into the astronaut program,” referring to the fact that he grew up in a lower-middle-class, single-parent household. “But I had the drive to succeed.”

Don – who is a private pilot with more than 250 hours in single engine land aircraft and gliders-- earned a Bachelor's degree in physics from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Then it was on to Cornell University for his Master’s of Science and Ph.D. degrees in materials science and engineering. After seven years at Bell Labs in Princeton, NJ, he moved to Houston as a NASA materials engineer. Two and a half years later, NASA selected him for the astronaut program.
Looking to the future and to his post-NASA role of motivating tomorrow’s young scientists, Don is quite optimistic – even thrilled. “To be honest, I am as excited about starting up the Hackerman Academy as I was when I was strapped into the shuttle awaiting my first launch,” he says with a wide grin.The need for science, technology, engineering and mathematics graduates is already great, and this will only increase.”

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