Paul A. Thurston, 58, a retired aerospace engineer and physicist who had served with the federal government for 34 years, died of cancer Wednesday at his home in Wheaton.

From 1963 to 1978, he was program manager for the Air Force's office of scientific research, working in high altitude physics, laser aerodynamics and plasma physics.

Earlier, from 1944 to 1963, Mr. Thurston worked at the Naval Ordnance Laboratory, where he helped establish the ballistics range program. He was sent to the Netherlands in 1951 for study and research at the University of Amsterdam.

Mr. Thurston was born in Kilbourne, Ohio. He earned a bachelor of arts degree from Ohio Wesleyan University and a bachelor of mechanical engineering degree from Ohio State University. He worked for the General Electric Co. in Schenectady, N.Y., before coming here in 1944.

A runner in college, he resumed distance running at the age of 47. He became a champion age-group marathoner, winning numerous masters awards. He was a member of the D.C. Roadrunners Club and the Potomac Valley Seniors Track Club.

Mr. Thurston was a member of Phi Beta Kappa, Tau Beta Pi, engineering honor society, and Sigma Xi, science honor society. He belonged to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

He had been active in the Boy Scouts and was a former scoutmaster of Troop 456 in Wheaton. He also was an elder of Wheaton Presbyterian Church.

He is survived by his wife, Margaret Martt Thurston, of the home; a daughter, Jean T. Baker, of Seattle; three sons, Robert E., of Washington, William P., of Princeton, N.J., and George M., of Wheaton; a brother, Robert N., of Colts Neck, N.J., and four grandchildren.

The family suggests that expressions of sympathy be in the form of contributions to the American Cancer Society or the Julie Lynn Simmons Memorial Fund at Wheaton Presbyterian Church.