Mr. JPL, the father of American space exploration, died March
15 of pneumonia at his home in La Cañada Flintridge. He was 93.
was born in Wellington, New Zealand, and grew up in the province of Marlborough.
Marlborough was also where Ernest Rutherford, another giant of world
science, was born and grew up, noted the Honorable Darryl Dunn,
New Zealands consul general, at the memorial service for Pickering
in Beckman Auditorium March 20. Like Rutherford, he had to go overseas
to pursue his career, said Dunn. Like Rutherford, Bill found
a new home that he loved greatly. And like Rutherford, Bill never forgot
the land of his youth.
electrical engineering at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch,
New Zealand, Pickering was encouraged by an uncle to study at Caltech.
He emigrated to the United States in 1929, earning his BS at the Institute
in 1932 and MS in 1933. After finishing his PhD in physics in 1936, he
joined the Caltech electrical engineering faculty. In 1941 he became an
Then in 1944
Pickering began his long, distinguished career at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory;
he became its director in 1954 and led it through the decades of the Cold
War and the space race. JPL was originally set up under the U.S. Army
to support guided-missile research and development, and Pickering worked
on the Private and Corporal rockets in the Labs early days. It was
Pickering, said Charles Elachi, the current JPL director, who made
the critical move in the late 1950s to have JPL do more than building
the rocketbuild whats on top of the rocket. Without that foresight,
that vision, and that boldness, JPL would not be what it is today.
Soviet Union launched Sputnik in the fall of 1957 and the space race began,
Pickering led the JPL team that, in a mere 83 days, launched the first
U.S. satellite, Explorer 1, on January 31, 1958. And also in 1958, when
JPL, under Caltechs management, was transferred to the newly established
National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Pickering, when offered
the choice of either human or robotic exploration of space, chose the
role of sending unmanned spacecraft out into the solar system. There followed
subsequent Explorer missions, the Ranger and Surveyor missions to the
moon, and the several Mariner flybys of Venus and Mars. He appeared on
the cover of Time magazine twicein 1963 and again in 1965. When
he retired as director in 1976, the two Voyager missions were being prepared
for launch on their spectacular tour of the outer planets, and Viking
1 was about to land on Mars. And when Spirit and Opportunity
landed on Mars last January, Pickering was there at JPL, celebrating the
brought to the Lab strong leadership, good engineering, and good management,
said Elachi at the memorial service. He was unflappable, and
ran the lab with a steady hand. And a sense of humor. Elachi
spoke of how Pickering used to describe the lab as a graduate student
project that got out of hand, whose main task in the early days
was to figure out how to make a rocket that wont blow up.
JPL administrators also spoke at the memorial, each in his own way praising
Pickerings role in setting JPL on its trajectory to the planets.
Lieutenant General Charles H. Terhune Jr. an Air Force rocket man who
was JPLs deputy director from 1971 to 1983, noted the Labs
first rocket projects and said, There was no doubt that he wanted
to go into space as opposed to simply making weapons. He inspired vision
in people. He tried out new ideas. He didnt lose sight of his objectives.
Rechtin (BS 46, PhD 50), assistant director of JPL from 1958
to 1967 and chief architect of the Deep Space Network, was a student of
Pickerings and spoke of Pickerings boyshis
Caltech students. He taught by example; he taught us discipline;
he taught us precision; he taught us about humility. He was everyones
favorite professor and also taught his students how important it
was that things had to work, not just be.
how the Deep Space Network was bornnot in 1963 as officially stated,
but back in the days before Explorers launch. Pickering understood
about the importance of that particular flight, of the interest
that the world would have, and how important it was to measure it.
And when the Army declared a tracking system unnecessary, Pickering sent
his tracking stations (all we needed was a suitcase full of stuff
and we could do anything) to British Commonwealth friends around
the worldthe first international network, said Rechtin. And
it was the Nigerian station that first heard the signals from Explorer
that told us of the existence of the Van Allen ionization belts. The Nigerians
were listening at the right time at the right place and they heard us.
president of Caltech from 1987 to 1997, also mentioned the discovery of
the Van Allen belts. For Pickering, he said, it wasnt enough
to have a beeping satellite as the Russians had. Ours needed to do something
useful and it did. Everhart put that down to Pickerings Caltech
education. He has stated that when he knew that Explorer I was successfully
orbiting the earth, that was one of the proudest moments of his life.
Bill Pickering will go down in Caltech history as a man who demonstrated
that the Institute could take on a new role, leading a government-funded
mission laboratory to make unprecedented discoveries about our planetary
system, said Everhart. He emphasized the synergy and mutual
dependence between science and engineering.
received many honors during his long life, among them the National Medal
of Science, NASAs Distinguished Service Medal, and the New Zealand
Order of Merit. He was awarded an honorary knighthood by, as Dunn, the
consul general, called her, the Queen of New Zealand.
always claimed him as a beloved son. Dunn remembered seeing
the first Mars pictures in 1965 and the distinguished man with the
odd American accent presenting them. I still remember my mother
pointing to him and saying with pride, Thats Dr. Pickering.
Did you know hes a New Zealander?
in his memory may be made to the William H. Pickering Scholarship for
New Zealand Graduate Students at Caltech.
He is survived by his wife, Inez, and his daughter, Elizabeth Pickering Mezitt. His son, William Balfour, died two days before him. JD