Maxwell W. Hunter

Born 1922 in Hollidaysburg, PA and died November 10, 2001 in Stanford, CA; Maxwell Hunter wrote Thrust into Space in 1966. He speculated that the expansion of the human race throughout the solar system could create a New Renaissance. “Space is the one place where we can obtain natural resources without damaging either the earth’s ecological balance or its natural beauty”

“Thrust into Space“ remains the best text on orbital mechanics as well as an excellent introduction to propulsion systems. It neither oversimplifies or is so mathematical to make it only accessible to specialists. Using no math beyond algebra, he discusses everything from basic rocket principles to the basics of relativistic spaceflight. Graphs are used extensively in situations where the math would otherwise become intimidating.


Maxwell W. Hunter has been in aircraft, missiles and space activities for over 50 years since graduating from MIT in 1944.

He worked at Douglas Aircraft in Santa Monica, CA from 1944 to 1961, during which he worked with the Rita single stage nuclear rocket in 1959. As Chief Missiles Design Engineer, he was responsible for the aerodynamic design of Thor, Nike-Ajax, Nike-Zeus and Hercules, Sparrows I, II and III, Honest John and other missiles. Subsequently, as Chief Engineer of Space Systems, for the engineering of all Douglas space efforts, including the Delta, the Saturn S-IV stage, and others.

In 1962, he 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. While there, he was the first to recognize the strong effect of Jupiter’s gravity on planetary probe vehicles and was instrumental in opening the outer solar system by supplementing rocket performance with planetary gravitational impulse.

He was with the Lockheed Missiles and Space Company for 22 years from 1965 to 1987. He was responsible for the StarClipper expendable tank design at Lockheed in 1966, the design of the Advanced Space Transportation Vehicles StarClipper and Shuttle, originated the concept of using large expendable tanks in shuttle design, and the X-Rocket single stage to orbit at Lockheed in 1985. He led the proposal that won the Hubble Space Telescope contract for Lockheed, and was its program manager during the creation phase of the design.

He did extensive work on the defensive applications of high energy lasers and originated the Space Battle Station concept. He continually pursued single stage designs and aircraft-like operations as the keys to vastly improved, economical space transportation.

In 1966, Hunter published a book called Thrust into Space, in which he speculated that expanding the basic operations of the human race throughout the solar system could well create a new Renaissance. “Space is the one place,” he added, “where we can obtain natural resources without damaging either the earth’s ecological balance or its natural beauty.” This was a decade in advance of the O’Neill/L-5 phenomenon. According to Hunter, he started thinking about space-based ballistic missile defense in 1967 and began serious formulation in 1970. After doing initial work at Lockheed, he and his colleagues briefed officials of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the U.S. Air Force, and the U.S. Army, and got a contract in 1971 to do further work. In Hunter’s phrase, the idea “percolated through the system” from 1971 to 1977. Hunter comments, “You cannot hasten the process of getting people to accept an idea” — an interesting contrast to O’Neill and his space colonies.

In 1977, Hunter learned that an introduction he had written for Lockheed proposals on this subject had been declassified. Realizing that it could make a provocative unclassified paper, he rewrote it and in early 1978 began privately circulating a paper entitled “Strategic Dynamics and Space-Laser Weaponry.”

Challenging MAD, Hunter pointed out that high energy lasers were proliferating and that space transportation was about to become sufficiently economical that, if it were used to place such lasers in space, an effective defense against even massive ballistic missile exchanges would be possible. “This,” wrote Hunter, “is the only new strategic concept to present itself in a number of decades, and the only one which merits the words . . . potentially decisive.” Hunter expected his ideas to draw fire both from arms controllers and from advocates of offensive systems.

Hunter’s paper was photocopied and passed around and was mentioned in Newsweek in February 1978. In the summer of 1979 it got into political channels when Hunter met Angelo Codevilla, staff aide to Senator Malcolm Wallop of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Codevilla arranged for Hunter to meet Wallop, who became a strong and highly visible advocate of the space-based ABM. Drawing on Hunter’s work, Wallop wrote an article on the subject in the fall 1979 Strategic Review.

Invited to give briefings to other senators, Hunter put together a team of industry experts that became known as “the Gang of Four”: Joseph Miller of TRW Incorporated, Norbert Schnog of Perkin-Elmer Corporation, Gerald Ouelette of Draper Laboratories, and Hunter himself. This group briefed a number of senators during late 1979. The heart of their presentation was the argument that chemical laser weapons using known technology could be deployed in space in the 1980s, offering a near-term way to have an impact on the strategic situation.

The issue broke into the open in the spring of 1980, when Wallop and Congressman Ken Kramer of Colorado advocated increased funding for research into directed energy weapons that could be used in space-based ABM systems. Some defense officials took sharp exception to the views of Hunter and his colleagues, and reportedly asked their employers to make the Gang of Four ease off. Aviation Week later singled out the Gang of Four for praise for risking their professional reputations and resisting Pentagon pressure in telling Congress that U.S. industry had the capability to do the job.

Hunter, who helped design the Nike-Zeus ABM system, has always disliked MAD. In 1984, he described it as “illegal, immoral — and fattening.”

In July of 1989, in order to better pursue the quest for superior space transportation, he became a founder and President/CEO of SpaceGuild, Inc. He was instrumental in starting the SDIO Single-Stage-To-Orbit program in 1990 and worked closely with McDonnell Douglas Delta Clipper team. The Delta Clipper DC-X first flew on August 18, 1993 at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico.


He has authored over 60 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 the 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 Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1944. He attended the Advanced Management Program of the Harvard Business School in 1967.


He is Phi Beta Kappa, Tau Beta Pi, and a Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, American Astronautical Society, and British Interplanetary Society. He is a member of the International Academy of Astronautics and an honorary member of the Japanese Rocket Society. In 1982, he received the NASA Public Service medal for “the definition and promotion of the space shuttle and its utilization.” In 1995, he received the Werhner von Braun Memorial Award of the National Space Society for “life-long contributions to the fields of rockets, missiles and spaceflight.”

Maxwell Hunter is survived by his wife, Irene Manning Hunter of San Carlos, CA and his former wife, Nancy Spencer Hunter of Hollidaysburg; five children, Maxwell of Hollidaysburg, Sally H. Wiley of Evanston, IL, Peggy H. Shafer of Pleasanton, CA; Matthew S. Hunter of San Francisco, CA, and David H. Hunter of Los Angeles, CA. He also has five grandchildren, Nathan Hunter and Leah Haslam of Hollidaysburg, Cyndy Shafer of Layfayette, CA, and Samantha and Mackenzie Wiley, both of Evanston, IL.