Bill Pickering shows off a model of a Mariner spacecraft in 1967.

William Hayward Pickering
1910— 2004

Bill Pickering, “Mr. JPL,” the father of American space exploration, died March 15 of pneumonia at his home in La Cañada Flintridge. He was 93.

Pickering 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 Zealand’s 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.”

While studying 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 American citizen.

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 Lab’s 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 rocket—build what’s on top of the rocket. Without that foresight, that vision, and that boldness, JPL would not be what it is today.”

When the 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 Caltech’s 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 twice—in 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 triumph.

Pickering 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 won’t blow up.”

Several former JPL administrators also spoke at the memorial, each in his own way praising Pickering’s role in setting JPL on its trajectory to the planets. Lieutenant General Charles H. Terhune Jr. an Air Force rocket man who was JPL’s deputy director from 1971 to 1983, noted the Lab’s 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 didn’t lose sight of his objectives.”

Eberhardt 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 Pickering’s and spoke of “Pickering’s boys”—his Caltech students. “He taught by example; he taught us discipline; he taught us precision; he taught us about humility.” He was everyone’s favorite professor and also taught his students “how important it was that things had to work, not just be.”

Rechtin described how the Deep Space Network was born—not in 1963 as officially stated, but back in the days before Explorer’s 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 world—the 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.”

Tom Everhart, president of Caltech from 1987 to 1997, also mentioned the discovery of the Van Allen belts. For Pickering, he said, “it wasn’t enough to have a beeping satellite as the Russians had. Ours needed to do something useful and it did.” Everhart put that down to Pickering’s 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.”

“I believe 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.”

Pickering received many honors during his long life, among them the National Medal of Science, NASA’s 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.”

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, ‘That’s Dr. Pickering. Did you know he’s a New Zealander?’”

Donations 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