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Profile in Persistence: A Visit With Dryden's X-43 Chief Engineer
03.15.04
 
Griffin Corpening is excited about his job. In a world where daring test pilots and astronauts traditionally get most of the attention, engineers often go quietly about their work. Griffin Corpening in the Dryden mission control room

Image to right: Images from Griffin Corpening's video monitor are mirrored in his glasses in one of NASA Dryden's mission control rooms monitoring an X-43A test. Credit: NASA/Tom Tschida.

But that doesn't affect the confidence of Corpening, who is chief engineer on the unmanned X-43A hypersonic research aircraft at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base in Calif. The X-43A is expected to fly March 27.

His job satisfaction comes from the privilege of working on a project of national importance and of historic note. According to Corpening, never before has an organization come so far in the design, assembly and flight of a scramjet-powered hypersonic vehicle. He enjoys the technical challenge of the project and the chance to work with such an outstanding team. "To accomplish our mission takes hundreds of dedicated people, from engineers and managers to mechanics, technicians and administrative support people," Corpening says. "I cannot overemphasize how much of a team effort a project of this magnitude requires."

Corpening, who comes from the tiny Wyoming town of Saratoga, finds it tough to imagine a job more exhilarating than his own. A Dryden employee for more than 12 years, Corpening believes the fun part of being chief engineer is playing a role in every aspect of the project. Whether it's working out a problem with a fin actuation system on the vehicle or coordinating the control room operations, the chief engineer is always involved.

Before coming to Dryden, Corpening worked at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Columbia, Md. There, as well as at the University of Maryland, he studied under two of the world's leading hypersonic and scramjet experts. Hypersonic flight is generally defined as flying at five times the speed of sound or faster.

Since all flight projects run into problems, the chief engineer must address issues effectively and efficiently to move forward. Many people think of engineering as an exact science, with black and white problems and solutions, but Corpening says this isn't always the case. "The very reason we fly experimental vehicles is because of the limitation of ground test facilities and computer simulations," Corpening says. "Most solutions are some shade of gray where we've had to balance safety, risk and technical objectives against the project schedule, staffing and budget constraints. It can be a bit gut-wrenching at times."

Dramatic moments tie together Corpening's workdays. Among the most emotional times was the loss of the first X-43A shortly after launch. "There's nothing quite as exciting as working toward something for years and then coming to the final few seconds and seeing it launch," Corpening says. "And there's nothing quite as heartbreaking as seeing it come apart and crash into the sea a few seconds later, then struggling for months to decipher the data to understand what went wrong. It takes real stamina, character, and a strong belief that what you are doing is important."

Now, nearly three years later, Corpening and his team are excited about launching again. To relieve the growing anticipation, he often shifts his focus from the high-tech world to study and practice the time-honored skills of fire making, flint knapping (making arrowheads from stone) and animal tracking.

"In the end, I've decided I'd rather be the one in the ring than the one in the stands," Corpening says. "And that's why I work at Dryden, because when you are flight testing at Dryden you are definitely in the ring...It's a great business we are in."

For more information on the X-43A Program, visit http://www.dfrc.nasa.gov/Newsroom/FactSheets/FS-040-DFRC.html

A recent video clip of an X-43A captive carry flight is at http://www.dfrc.nasa.gov/Gallery/Movie/Hyper-X/HTML/EM-0015-05.html

 
 
Gray Creech
NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center