Launching a Legacy

Friends and colleagues of Paul David Tompkins ’92 (1970–2022) remember him as a person who never did anything halfway. Mountain climbing and scuba diving took him all over the world. He had his helicopter pilot’s license, a black belt in karate, and proficiency in Japanese and Spanish. He took medieval history courses at MIT, and it was a common sight to see him working on chain mail in his spare time.  

Space, though, was a lifelong passion, which led to him majoring aeronautics and astronautics at MIT. He went on to become lead flight director for NASA’s Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite mission, which discovered water under the moon’s surface in 2009. Paul worked at SpaceX from 2010 to 2019, taking a leading role in developing, documenting, and directing operational procedures and flight rules for Cargo Dragon and Crew Dragon flights. It was one of those crafts that ended up performing the first-ever commercial spacecraft rendezvous with the International Space Station and Earth through deorbit, entry, and landing.  

His most recent employer, Blue Origin, sent a plaque into space that honored his memory as an explorer who was “dedicated to expanding humanity beyond Earth.” 

“He loved life, and sharing what he loved with other people,” says his mother, Mimi. 

“To the moon and beyond” 

Paul was eager to continue his education after MIT, earning a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Stanford University and master’s and doctoral degrees in robotics from Carnegie Mellon University. He traveled far and wide to research his dissertation, titled “Mission-Directed Path Planning for Planetary Rover Navigation,” testing the rover on landscapes like the Canadian Arctic and the Atacama Desert in Chile—the driest desert on Earth. 

As the steward of Paul’s estate, Mimi knew that using it to make an endowed scholarship gift to support others during their educational journeys would be a fitting way to honor his memory.  

“Paul was always reaching to the moon and beyond, and his MIT degree launched him on the career of his dreams,” she says. “I wanted to make a scholarship gift that will last in perpetuity so that others achieve their goals as well, and so that his name will be remembered.”  

Mimi Tompkins and Paul at his MIT graduation in 1992.

Paul D. Tompkins, center, with fellow Theta Chi brothers at their 25th Reunion in 2017.

A lasting bond   

In 2022, Paul’s Theta Chi fraternity brothers invited Mimi to what would have been Paul’s 30th Reunion—a “beautiful, but bittersweet” experience for her. The friendships he formed at MIT made a profound impact on his life, she says: . 

“Paul would be proud to know his contribution will assist others in fulfilling their dreams. He never missed an opportunity to inspire, encourage, and support his fellow human beings in making their dreams come true.” 

A version of this story originally appeared in the March/April 2024 issue of MIT Technology Review.  

Photo (top of page): Paul D. Tompkins on a climbing expedition in Nepal, 2019.

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