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Sir William Hayward Pickering

This article was drawn from several published sources and personal recollections, by Steve.Thompson@rsnz.org

One of the world's leading space scientists, New Zealander Sir William Pickering, Hon FRSNZ, died on March 17 2004, aged 93, of pneumonia at his home in Flintridge, California. Sir William was a central figure in the US space programme and former director of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

William Hayward Pickering was born in Roxburgh Street, Wellington on Christmas Eve 1910. His mother Elizabeth died when he was six and he went to live with his grandparents in Havelock, in the Marlborough Sounds. There he attended Havelock Primary School, which Ernest Rutherford had also attended.In 1923 he enrolled at Wellington College. His father Albert, a pharmacist, had gone to work in the tropics, which he didn't believe was healthy for his sons. While at the College, William was inspired by his maths teacher, A C Gifford. 'Pop' Gifford founded the school's observatory, where the young William took his first look at the stars through a telescope. William's ability to marry practical and theoretical science developed at school. With schoolmate Fred White, he built an early radio station and the two used Morse code to communicate with others around the world.

After school, William studied engineering at Canterbury University for a year before an uncle with ties to California encouraged him to apply to the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). Although new, Caltech already had an excellent reputation for science and engineering. He completed a BSc in electrical engineering there in 1932, a masters degree in 1933 and a PhD in Physics in 1936. He returned to New Zealand hoping to work as an engineer. Unable to find satisfactory work, he returned to Caltech, becoming a professor of electrical engineering there in 1946. He became a U.S. citizen in 1941

Dr Pickering became involved with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) at Pasadena in 1944, when the war was quickly advancing jet technology from theory to reality. He initially became involved with the Lab through his studies into telemetry, the art of receiving data from a distant instrument. He organised efforts at JPL to support guided missile research and development, becoming project manager for Corporal, the first operational missile that JPL developed. Dr Pickering joined JPL in 1950 to work full time, and became its director in 1954.

In November 1957, the first Soviet Sputnik was launched, circling the globe every 90 minutes. I recall the incredulity of my own maths teacher at the time, who said that it couldn't possibly work, because the rockets had no atmosphere to push against! Sputnik transmitted a beep that could be heard on any short wave radio on earth. Dr Pickering directed the JPL effort, which, 83 days later, provided the satellite, communications, and the upper rocket stages that lifted Explorer I into orbit on January 31, 1958. This quiet, mild-mannered New Zealander was the man responsible for America's first satellite. It orbited the earth for the next 10 years. As Sir William said in a 1993 lecture: "It was only the beeping reality of Sputnik that suddenly made the threat of intercontinental atomic warfare with ballistic rockets more than a science fiction story." Explorer I was small, only 203cm long with the rocket, and 15cm in diameter. But along with Explorer III, launched in March, its instruments provided evidence that the Earth is surrounded by intense bands of radiation, called the Van Allen belts after James Van Allen, the Iowa university professor who led the instrumentation team.

When the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was established in 1958, JPL was given a charter to develop deep space missions. In December 1962, Mariner II flew by Venus, following a 109-day journey of more than 290 million km. It was mankind's first fly past another planet. In 1965, following a 228-day journey of over 525 million km, Mariner IV obtained the first close-up pictures of Mars. The computers it carried were early-1960s technology, hardly comparable to personal computers today. Four more Mariner missions reached Venus and Mars before Dr Pickering retired from JPL in 1976 at the age of 66.

Dr Pickering appeared on a cover of Time Magazine twice, in 1963 and again in 1965. He earned an Order of New Zealand; and was elected an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand in 1964. He was awarded an honorary knighthood in 1976.

In 2003, he gave his consent to the Royal Society of New Zealand to establish the Pickering Medal in his honour to recognise excellence and innovation in the practical applications of technology. The medal will be awarded for the first time in 2004 to a person who, while in New Zealand, has through design, development or invention performed innovative work the results of which have been significant in their influence and recognition both nationally and internationally, or which have led to significant commercial success.

In a lecture at Canterbury University in 2003, Sir William said he had no idea that his work would develop into space. He rated as one of his major achievements the Ranger VII mission that returned the first pictures of the moon's surface in 1966. Before this many scientists believed the moon was covered by a thick layer of dust. Ranger's observations disproved this, and led the way for astronaut Neil Armstrong's first steps on the Moon. During his lecture, illustrated by many close up pictures of our system's planets, it was evident that, for Sir William, the delight was in the challenge and the achievement. He waxed lyrical about the engineering involved, while giving passing mention to the beauteous spheres!


















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