Longtime Stevens Supporter to Receive Alumni Award

5/20/2014

When Bob Thoelen graduated from Stevens in 1974 and landed his dream job with the Hamilton Standard division of United Technologies Corporation (UTC) in Connecticut, he never expected to return to his alma mater in a recruiting capacity. But Thoelen has done just that, faithfully returning to campus to help fit Stevens students and alumni with aerospace careers for more than 35 years.

Since the fall of 1995, Thoelen has been the recruiting lead for his employer, now called UTC Aerospace Systems (UTAS), when he returns to campus for recruiting events. Thoelen meets with dozens of students to see if a match can be made to UTAS. That first year when he assumed the lead role, two alumni from the Class of 1996 joined UTAS soon after their graduation; in 2002, UTAS recruited 12, their largest number. Two members of the Class of 2014 will be arriving at UTC soon.  This brings the tally to 68 Stevens alumni that have joined UTC since 1996, and about 60 percent are still there. He admits the recruiting duty was one of those “outside of the field’’ moments that happens to many people.  

“I never thought this was something I would be doing,’’ said the recently-retired project manager for UTAS’ Space Systems business unit. “This aside to my engineering career has been equally fulfilling to me as I get to connect to the younger generation of engineers and I help students come UTC’s way. This is my way of giving back to the company and to Stevens.’’

Because of his dedication and service to Stevens, Thoelen has been selected to receive the Stevens Alumni Award to be presented at the Alumni Dinner Dance on Saturday, May 31.

Thoelen’s career has spanned 40 years at UTAS, the only employer he has known. And it’s not the exact career he originally set out to have.

This “kid’’ from the Midwood section of Brooklyn, N.Y., dreamed of being an astronaut. Growing up in the 1960s, he listened intently as President Kennedy spoke about one day putting a man on the moon and the words ignited his own passion for space exploration. “I knew I had to be a part of it,’’ he said. But, that path was not meant to be. He pointed to his eyeglasses and added that “these things put an end to that dream.’’ But Thoelen discovered that being an astronaut was not the only career path and there was a way to be a part of that world, the world that President Kennedy aspired to, for someone with less-than-perfect vision. “I thought if I couldn’t be an astronaut, well, I could be involved in the industry that supported the space effort,’’ he said.

He was all set to go to Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, but an aunt in Weehawken, N.J. strongly encouraged him to look at Stevens. “This was pre-internet days; I had never even heard of Stevens,’’ he confessed. And he commuted from his Brooklyn home all four years, taking two subway trains to Manhattan each day and then walking through the Twin Towers being erected in the early 1970s to catch the PATH train to Hoboken.

He started with then-Hamilton Standard (now UTAS), helping to develop, manufacture, and provide field support for the Space Shuttle's Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS) for nearly a decade. He later supported activities associated with the ECLSS for the International Space Station (ISS) and also served as the Space Systems Chief of Project Engineering for nearly six years. But over half his career was dedicated to supporting activities associated with the Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU), which is an astronaut’s spacesuit and life support system.  For the past decade, he has been the EMU Anomaly Resolution Manager, or, as he puts it, the one responsible if anything goes wrong.

“My career was all I hoped for and more,’’ he said. His team worked on design, development, and life extension activities for the primary life support system (PLSS) of the EMU, making it robust, interchangeable and reusable. Small refinements made to the PLSS and the spacesuit softgoods by the early 1990s made it NASA’s EMU of choice for building the International Space Station. “I enjoyed my job and it provided a lot of learning experiences for me. I got to learn the ins and outs from design concept all the way to fruition. I got to work on board some of the Shuttle vehicles and watched every launch. My ultimate customers were the astronauts and I got to rub shoulders with many of them throughout the years. The biggest compliment I received is when one of them would tell my colleagues and me that the spacesuit was like an ordinary suit – lightweight, comfortable and something you can forget about once it’s on - it does what it’s supposed to do. ’’

And retirement? Thoelen isn’t even sure what that word means. “I have four of my five children and seven of my eight grandchildren nearby, so I can keep busy very easily,’’ he said with a smile. He’s nicknamed 2014 “The Year of the House’’ and plans to tackle some long-delayed home improvement projects. After that, travel is on the agenda.

It looks like he’s not done exploring.