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Max Hunter Biography

“Max was one of the real pioneers."
~Roger Launius, Chief Historian National Aeronautics and Space Administration  "He spanned the history of space flight literally from the dawn of the Space Age until his death in 2001. He was involved in virtually every major launch vehicle that was developed in the United States in some form or another.”

After graduating from MIT in 1944, Max began his career at Douglas Aircraft Company in Santa Monica, California. During his 18-year tenure there, he was responsible for the aerodynamic design of Nike-Ajax and Hercules, Sparrows I, II and III, Honest John and other missiles.

Later, as Chief Missiles Design Engineer, he was responsible for Nike-Zeus and was the principal designer of the Air Force Thor intermediate range ballistic missile.

It was during the Thor years that Max became acquainted with Wernher Von Braun whose team in Huntsville Alabama was developing the Army's competitive Jupiter IRBM.  Later they would become friends and colleagues.

While serving as head of the Douglas internal Space Committee, Max conceived the idea of a nuclear-powered rocket known as RITA, for Reusable Interplanetary Transport Approach.  It promised "economy of operation, convenience in terms of flight schedule, ease of maintenance, and versatility of utilization." 

As Chief Engineer of Space Systems at Douglas, he was responsible for the engineering of all Douglas space efforts including the Delta, the Saturn S-IV and S-IVB stages and others.

In 1962, Max joined the professional staff of the National Aeronautics and Space Council in Washington D.C. As part of this advisory group to the President of the United States, he provided insight into future space programs and the creation of national space policy in both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. While there, he was the first to recognize the strong effect of Jupiter’s gravity on planetary probe vehicles and was instrumental in opening up the outer solar system by supplementing rocket performance with planetary gravitational impulse.

Max was with the Lockheed Missiles and Space Company for 22 years from 1965 to 1987, where he was responsible for the design of the advanced space transportation vehicles StarClipper and Shuttle and originated the concept of using large expendable tanks in shuttle design.

He led the team that won the contract for the design of the large space telescope (eventually dubbed Hubble Space Telescope) and served as program manager for four years during its creation phase.

Max did extensive work in the applications of high energy lasers for missile defense and originated the space laser battle station concept.

His 1977 paper “Strategic Dynamics and Space Laser Weaponry” has often been cited as starting the conversation that resulted in President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI).

As founder and president of his consulting firm, SpaceGuild, Max was instrumental in starting the SSTO (Single-Stage-to Orbit) program in 1990 and worked closely with the McDonnell Douglas Delta Clipper team. The Delta Clipper DC-X first flew on August 18, 1993 at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico.

For over 35 years, starting in 1959 with the RITA single stage nuclear rocket at Douglas, the StarClipper expendable tank design at Lockheed in 1966 and the X-Rocket single stage to orbit at Lockheed in 1985, he continually pursued single stage designs and aircraft-like operations as the keys to vastly improved, economical space transportation. The potential of this approach was dramatically demonstrated in 1993 with the test flights of the Delta Clipper.

He authored over five dozen technical papers. Their subject matter has included the unmanned exploration of the solar system and the economics of manned space transportation, the latter dealing with both utilization of advanced nuclear rockets and the use of chemical rockets and expendable tanks in space shuttles. He has also authored “Are Technological Upheavals Inevitable?” published in the Harvard Business Review and a rocket propulsion textbook titled “Thrust into Space.”

Mr. Hunter graduated from Hollidaysburg High School, Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania in 1939. He received an A.B. degree in Physics and Mathematics from Washington and Jefferson College in 1942 and an M.S. degree in Aeronautical Engineers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1944.

He attended the Advanced Management Program of the Harvard Business School in 1967. He was Phi Beta Kappa, Tau Beta Pi, and a Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, American Astronomical Society, and the British Interplanetary Society, was a member or the International Academy of Astronautics and in 1982 was awarded an honorary membership in the Japanese Rocket Society.

In 1982 he received the NASA Distinguished Public Service medal for “the definition and promotion of the space shuttle and its utilization.” In 1995 he received the Wernher von Braun Memorial Award of the National Space Society for “lifelong contributions to the fields of rockets, missiles a spaceflight.”

Max Hunter passed away at Stanford Hospital in 2001.

Maxwell W. Hunter, giant of American rocket engineering, legendary aerodynamicist, national policy advisor and space visionary.
Maxwell W. Hunter II was a giant of American rocketry throughout the golden age of the U.S. space program, legendary aerodynamicist, national policy advisor and space visionary.

Max Hunter stands in front of Nike missile family including Nike Ajax, Nike Hercules and Nike Zeus. Optimal: At Douglas Aircraft Company, he was in charge of the missile aerodynamics during the development of Ajax and Hercules and was chief missile engineer during the development of Zeus.

While serving as head of the Douglas internal Space Committee, Max conceived the idea of a nuclear-powered rocket known as RITA.


As his responsibilities continued to expand at Douglas during the mid and late 50’s, Max found himself in the public eye.  These early experiences would prove to be valuable training for what was to come on the national stage. 










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The mission of the Maxwell W. Hunter Foundation is to support secondary-level aeronautical engineering curriculum in the United States while inspiring America's youth to consider careers in aeronautical engineering.

The Foundation also provides insight into America's golden age of space exploration by following the five-decade journey of legendary aerodynamicist and space visionary Max Hunter.

Phone: 818.380.3058