“I built a lot of small rockets when I was growing up, and ended up sticking with that—building somewhat bigger ones more recently,” says Thompson, co-founder of space-technology trailblazer Orbital, which has launched more than a thousand space systems for applications ranging from national defense to satellite TV to exoplanet astronomy.
Thompson credits his Caltech experience with helping set the direction for his extraordinary career. In recognition of the role the Institute has played in his life and the philanthropic support he received during his student years, he and his wife, Catherine, have made a commitment to the Break Through campaign to endow graduate fellowships.
“Graduate students these days seem so smart and motivated—at no place more so than at Caltech,” Thompson says. “If we can help them get off to a good start in their careers, that’s really great.”
The gift augments an endowment the couple established in 2011 to support graduate students pursuing space studies in the Division of Engineering and Applied Science. With their new contribution and funding from the Gordon and Betty Moore Graduate Fellowship Match, the Thompsons are creating a suite of three David and Catherine Thompson Fellowships in Space Studies, with a preference for students in space science and engineering across multiple Caltech divisions.
When Thompson arrived in sunny Pasadena from Boston, where he spent his undergraduate days at MIT, he says he felt “kind of like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly.” He brought with him the kernel of an idea for a space-technology company—a concept that matured at Caltech as the amateur rocketeer began to plot his trajectory as a professional.
Before even stepping on campus, Thompson helped land a robot on Mars during a summer internship with the Viking program at JPL—work he continued as a Hertz Foundation Fellow in the Graduate Aerospace Laboratories of the California Institute of Technology.
At Caltech, he studied the technical fundamentals with faculty members who had made some of the early breakthroughs in rocket propulsion and high-speed aerodynamics. Another piece fell into place with a lecture series about the advent of commercial communication satellites featuring industry pioneers.
“Until then, I only had a vague sense of how the aerospace industry worked,” Thompson says.
One of the next stops on his journey would be Harvard Business School. Two years after receiving his MBA, he joined two friends from that program to start a company originally named Orbital Sciences Corp. Thompson was chair, president, and chief executive officer.
By making rockets, satellites, and other space systems smaller and more affordable, Orbital grew from a start-up to a global leader in aerospace and defense technology. The company—now called Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems—built the Pegasus rocket, the first-ever privately developed space launch vehicle, and is known for putting space technology within the reach of more people and enterprises.
Of all the rockets and satellites Orbital sent up during Thompson’s 36 years at the helm (he retired in early 2018), he is perhaps proudest of the launches involving Caltech and JPL, spanning earth science, planetary exploration, and astrophysics.
“That’s about as good as it gets when it comes to doing space-related work,” he says. “Caltech is, in my view, the preeminent science and engineering institution for advanced education and research in the world. I’m proud not only to be a graduate but also to have continued my involvement with Caltech and JPL over the years.”
Thompson also expresses pride in a lesser-known Caltech contribution.
“Caltech has been the springboard for people who started major technology enterprises that have changed the way the world works,” he says, referring to alumni entrepreneurs who have helped bring revolutionary advances such as microprocessors and satellite GPS into everyday life. “If you scale it by size, Caltech has had a disproportionally large impact on the modern world.”
Although he describes himself as having contributed to that legacy “maybe in a smaller way,” Thompson has earned a host of honors. Among them are the National Medal of Technology, the International von Kármán Wings Award, and membership in the National Academy of Engineering. He was elected to the Caltech Board of Trustees in 2012 and also serves on the Institute’s Space Innovation Council.
Thompson shares his high-flying interests with other members of his family. Catherine Thompson volunteers as a docent for elementary school students visiting the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum—just one aspect of her quarter-century of involvement with charities in Washington, D.C., near the family’s home in northern Virginia. And their daughter, Maggie, studies astrophysics as a graduate student at UC Santa Cruz.
Today, David Thompson is particularly excited about the types of investigations the Thompson Fellows might tackle—including space- and ground-based astronomy and exoplanet research.
“There’s a good chance that within the next 10 or 20 years, we’ll know whether there are other planets that could harbor life, or maybe do harbor life,” Thompson says. “This could answer one of the most fundamental questions you can imagine, and Caltech’s right at the forefront of it all.”