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Joseph A. Del Corso
Joe DelCorso
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Joseph A. Del Corso, HIAD Flexible Thermal Protection Systems (Flexible TPS) Lead
Credit: NASA

Where are you from?

I'm a military brat; meaning I have lived all over, including Germany, Belgium, England, France, Japan, Morocco, California, Ohio, Louisiana, and Virginia. My parents retired to Virginia where I finished my senior year of high school before attending Virginia Tech. I earned a B.S. ('97) and M.S. ('99) in Physics from Virginia Tech before starting PhD work at William and Mary. While studying at W&M I was called up by a company working for NASA, and I decided at that time to switch from academia to working with NASA's Hyper-X program.

What motivated you to work for NASA?

It's always been my dream to work for NASA. The space program has always been an exciting concept because it represents the next major exploration hurdle for mankind. I've always liked that NASA's focus is to work on cutting edge technology and push the boundaries of what we know, where we go, and how we get there, with a desire to improve humanity.

Who inspired you?

I've been inspired by a number of people. Within my family I've been inspired by my father Ret.LtCol Robert E. Del Corso, and my grandfather, Maj.Gen. Sylvester T. Del Corso. My father is a humble scholar in every sense. He has been the one person I can turn to for an honest measured response and sound advice when needed. My grandfather fought in the pacific theatre (southern route) in WWII. He fought through the Solomon Islands campaign, Guadalcanal campaign, among others, and the Philippines. He retired with two Silver Stars, three Bronze Stars, a Purple Heart, Distinguished Service Medal, and a host of campaign medals; and was inducted into the War memorial hall of fame in Ohio.

What is your role on HIAD, and what are your responsibilities?

I'm the Flexible Thermal Protection Systems (Flexible TPS) lead. My responsibilities are to develop (from concept to flight) the flexible forebody aeroshell TPS which makes possible reentry using an inflatable stacked torus. My team and I work to achieve technology readiness levels which give NASA the confidence to choose TPS systems for flight projects. I walk a fine line working TPS between those people whose focus is research and development (concepts), and people who are more concerned with implementation of flight concepts (application).

Tell us about a favorite moment so far in your career.

I have three moments which stand out. The first is the history making, and record breaking flight of the X43-A (Hyper-X) vehicle, which flew at Mach 7. The second happened that same year when we flew the X43-A, Mach 10 mission breaking our own world record. The third was the successful flight of the IRVE-2 reentry vehicle. I enjoy being part of successful cutting edge flight projects.

When I was in 6th grade I was on a class field trip to a museum and there was an exhibit of a hypersonic vehicle called the "Dyna-Saur". I recently found the one pager for the Dyna-Saur in a box of memorabilia. The Dyna-Saur was one of the NASP precursors to the X43-A vehicle that I worked on 14 years later and saw fly successfully.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to take the same career path as you?

Work hard, stay in school, keep trying. There are going to be setbacks in every activity in life. The key is learning from the setbacks and finding a way to move forward.

What do you do for fun?

If you had asked this question a year ago, I wouldn't have been able to answer. At that time my life was consumed with only work. In the last year life events have caused me to reprioritize my life, and focus on balancing work and family. I now run 4-6 miles daily, lift weights, and play my guitar for fun. I thoroughly enjoy going out with friends, and spending time with my wife and kids.

If you were talking to a student interested in science and math or engineering, what advice would you give them?

Work hard, stay in school, keep trying. Focus hard on the math and basic principles that are taught, and find ways of applying those theorems and problems to your everyday life. More often than not, students spend too much time focused on paper problems, and not enough time on understanding the applicability to the real world. At the end of your degree, you should be able to not only regurgitate facts and figures, but be able to look at the world and understand where ideas taught in the classroom have merit around you.

As secondary advice, understand the focus of the degree you're trying to achieve. The bachelor's degree is about ingesting as many facts as possible. A decent school will require you to be a well-rounded student taking classes outside your degree. Keep in mind that even seemingly meaningless classes can teach you something new about life, yourself, or the world. A master's degree is about learning how fields within a degree are interrelated, and making those connections so that you have mastered not just topics within a field, but a body of knowledge. A doctoral degree is about giving back to the field and community, by digging deeper into an area that hasn't been explored thoroughly and doing research which enables the next generation to achieve. Essentially what a graduate degree achieves is teaching you how to learn. Be aware that learning doesn't stop when you leave school, so embrace the challenge of new topics and classes!