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  • Ken Smith

Eulogy for James (Jim) Cunningham

Updated: Dec 31, 2023

(1930 - 2023)

I remember the first time I saw Jim Cunningham. He was taking big strides, walking with purpose, across the Sverdrup engineering office in Tullahoma. Jim did everything with purpose and good intent. It was the beginning of 1989.

Although he was already a recognized expert on electrical power supplies for arc-heated test facilities with many years of experience at Arnold Engineering Development Center, he relished the opportunity to develop new facilities around the US and overseas. Jim and I and other team members began development of material test facilities in Japan and in Germany. Jim developed the electrical power supplies, controls, and instrumentation systems. His colleagues in Japan referred to him as Dr. Jim-san with respect and affection. Later, we would develop a commercial plasma heated facility for demilitarization purposes. At NASA Stennis Space Center, Jim developed the thrust measurement system specification for modifications to the B-1 test stand. At NASA Langley Research Center, he provided a procurement specification for a new 20-MW power supply and tuning support during commissioning.

In August 2014, an electrical fire in the NASA Ames Arc Jet Complex 150-MW power supply destroyed one of the rectifier modules necessary to operate the Interaction Heating Facility (IHF) at full capability. Removing IHF from service for an extended period threatened critical thermal protection material testing for planetary missions like OSIRIS-REx and the Orion program. Delays to these tests could have also delayed the launch schedule for the planetary mission, as well as component delivery milestones for Orion's EM1 vehicle.

Jim immediately agreed to assist in the recovery effort. He built an analytical model of the equivalent arc jet power supply circuit and used that model to calculate the voltage and current characteristics at various locations in the power circuit. Insights provided by Jim's model enabled identification of the root cause of the mishap and a low-risk decision to replace the failed component with an appropriately upgraded component.

As a result of Jim's analytical guidance and the work of the full recovery team, IHF successfully started on the first attempt to reproduce operational power levels. NASA was able to complete system verification testing and return the IHF to service. This allowed testing for OSIRIS-REx and supplied critical data for various verification and model delivery milestones. NASA awarded Jim the Exceptional Public Achievement Medal for his contributions to solving this problem in 2015.

In May of 2023, I received news from his daughter, Kay, that Jim had passed away. “His last week and passing was calm and peaceful, just like his life.” As family and friends gathered to pay respect in Tullahoma, his daughters asked me to gather some remarks from colleagues who had known Jim and been honored to work with him. These tributes include:

Dr. George Raiche, Associate Director at NASA Ames Research Center: "The arc jet world is a small one, but in this world Jim is a giant. Jim is an engineering hero; he really made a difference at NASA and for the nation."

Dr. Ali Guelhan, German Aerospace Center (DLR): “I am very sad to hear it. Jim was a very nice person and excellent engineer.”

Dr. Keith Kushman, an AEDC Fellow and team member: “Jim was always a pleasure to be with, smart, considerate, good listener, and a collaborator.”

In September 2023, the OSIRIS-REx sample return capsule touched down in the Utah desert after a seven-year, 3.86-billion-mile journey through our solar system to the asteroid Bennu and back. It was a feat of engineering and NASA's first-ever sample return from an asteroid. Many, many people contributed to a successful mission. Jim was one of those people. Jim’s analysis, innovation and design expertise made testing of the OSIRIS-REx heat shield possible and assured a safe return to Earth.

American science fiction author, Ray Bradbury, called space travel “our modern version of cathedral building: a vast, ambitious, multigenerational undertaking, a shared vision to work toward together as a culture.” Like building cathedrals, workers contribute to successful space travel with a wide spectrum of skills. A few are experts who guide the venture to a successful conclusion. Jim was one of those few master craftsmen with exceptional technical expertise.

But he was more than that. He was exceptional in his consideration for others, professionalism, and kindness. It was a pleasure to travel with Jim as he enjoyed new adventures, good food, and conversation. He made every project fun, and, in difficult circumstances, he was a source of encouragement. I am grateful for the opportunity to have known and worked with Jim Cunningham.


The James Webb Telescope. Source.

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