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Southern Illinois man's inspiring journey to NASA and Mars

  • Joseph Oldham and his wife, Jessica,on the NASA Kennedy Space Center Causeway in Florida, watching the launch of Orion EFT-1 mission 2014.

    Joseph Oldham and his wife, Jessica,on the NASA Kennedy Space Center Causeway in Florida, watching the launch of Orion EFT-1 mission 2014.
    Courtesy of Joseph Oldham

By Shannon Welker
Contributing writer
Posted on 6/28/2017, 1:00 AM

Joseph Oldham was a small-town boy with big goals and aspirations.

He grew up in Shawneetown, graduated from Gallatin County High School in 1999 and took a pre-engineering associate degree at Southeastern Illinois College in Harrisburg.

Today he lives near Denver with his wife, Jessica, and their young son, Oliver, where he works for NASA's primary contractor, Lockheed Martin Space Systems, developing the Orion spacecraft.

Orion will go to Mars. And Oldham, a structural dynamicist, will help put it there.

He works on many aspects of Orion, "from how the parts of the ship will separate during flight staging events or how hard the air will pummel the outside of the craft on its way to space, to how the parachutes are launched from the capsule to slow the spacecraft before landing," he said.

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Several members of Oldham's family attended Southeastern Illinois College before him, and his aunt, Mary Jo Oldham, was a former president of the school.

The young Oldham found not only direction at SIC, but also a home.

"Many who have walked (SIC's) halls straight out of high school are trying to figure out what path to take," he said. "For me, SIC was a place where I was exposed to the different demands college courses posed compared to what was expected of you in high school."

Oldham said SIC taught him strong study habits. He was searching for inspiration to push himself in his laborious math and science courses, and was astonished when a professor told him that in order to truly "get" it, he needed to dedicate two or three hours of studying for every hour of class time.

Eventually, Oldham learned how to convince himself that what he was studying was genuinely interesting, a way of thinking that has had long-lasting effects on his approach to life.

"He was very bright," SIC instructor Steve Rea recalled. "All of the instructors loved him. A very impressive young man."

Rea said that due to the instruction Oldham received at SIC, particularly from Alan Morgan and Frank Schneider, once he got to the University of Illinois he was already ahead of many students.

Oldham credited these three professors, and others, with influencing him to become the adult he is.

He graduated from SIC in 2001 with honors, and an associate degree in both science and engineering science. He finished his bachelor's in engineering mechanics in Urbana-Champaign, then went to Bradley University in Peoria for a master's in mechanical engineering with a focus in computational mechanics.

As a child, Oldham was mesmerized by dinosaurs and space. Thanks to his involvement with America's space exploration, he feels as if he has achieved a childhood dream.

Oldham said he will always be grateful to SIC for helping him find direction and providing a strong foundation on which to build, both academically and professionally.

"SIC and the support of my family provided a firm foundation for me to chase what once felt like insurmountable challenges and enabled me to call them achievements," Oldham said. "Southeastern Illinois College offers an invaluable service to all the small rural communities it serves. I am only one of many who have benefited from the college's resources in the pursuit of knowledge to better myself."

• For more information about the Orion spacecraft, scheduled to fly in 2018, visit Orion is currently undergoing assembly and testing at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.