William H. Pickering

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William Hayward Pickering

Birthdate: (93)
Birthplace: Wellington, New Zealand
Death: March 14, 2004 (93)
La Cañada Flintridge, CA, USA
Immediate Family:

Son of Albert William Pickering and Elizabeth Ann Pickering
Husband of <private> Pickering (Chapman) and Muriel Pickering
Father of <private> Pickering and <private> Mezitt (Pickering)

Managed by: Martin Severin Eriksen
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About William H. Pickering

A seminal figure of the age of space, New Zealand-born William Hayward Pickering was internationally known for his significant contributions to the founding of the space age, and for the first robotic explorations of the Moon, Venus and Mars. William Pickering was a former director of the world-famous Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California from 1954 until he retired in 1976.

Known affectionately in the United States as “Mr JPL,”or the original “Rocket Man,” William Pickering was born in Wellington in 1910 and spent his early childhood and primary education in Havelock, a small country town in the South Island of New Zealand. His paternal roots are linked to the Pickering family of Marlborough and his maternal connections to the Hayward family of Otago. In the course of his secondary education at Wellington College, Wellington, he excelled in mathematics and science and discovered an intense interest in the (then new) techniques of amateur radio communication. In his later years, he often recalled that it was his experience at Wellington College that sparked his abiding interest in science and technology, an interest that would ultimately carry him to a career beyond his wildest dreams.

After spending one year studying electrical engineering at Canterbury College in Christchurch he moved to Pasadena, California, where he completed his education with Bachelor, Master and Doctorate degrees in physics, cum laude, at the prestigious California Institute of Technology. He became a member of the Caltech Faculty in 1936, and Professor of Electrical Engineering in 1944.

At Caltech he worked as a researcher under the famous physicist Robert Millikan on, then newly discovered, cosmic-ray experiments. In the course of this work he refined existing techniques for producing rugged, geiger counter tubes for cosmic-ray detection, and developed electronic, coincidence-counters for determining the directional characteristics of cosmic radiation. Stimulated by Millikan’s interest in the use of high-altitude balloons to measure cosmic rays beyond the dense regions of the atmosphere, Pickering developed light-weight instrument packages that employed new electronic techniques for returning the cosmic-ray data to earth. This technology came to be called “telemetry,”and eventually established him as leader in that field. Together with Millikan and Victor Neher, another pioneer in early cosmic-ray research, he carried out extensive investigations in India, Canada and Mexico searching for the “latitude effect”in cosmic ray intensity at high altitudes. A succession of papers published in Physical Review, Review of Scientific Instruments and Reviews of Modern Physics, are testament to his productivity at this period of his life.

William Pickering became a naturalised American citizen in February 1941, but retained his dual citizenship throughout his life.

During World War II (WW II) Pickering served as an electrical engineering educator and advisor to the United States Navy at Caltech. In 1944, when Caltech’s JPL was developing rocket propulsion systems for the U.S. Army, Pickering joined the workforce as a technical manager. At war’s end he toured Germany and Japan with Theodore von Karman’s technical assessment team to evaluate the state of rocket technology in those countries. Ten years later, at the height of the Cold War with the U.S.S.R., Caltech named him to the position of director of JPL.

As Director of JPL, Pickering oversaw the development and test of the U.S. Army’s first two Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile weapon systems, the Corporal and Sergeant, during which he personally established the basic technology for the precision guidance systems on which all such weapons depend for their ultimate target accuracy. In the course of this work he met, and eventually became a close friend of, Wernher von Braun the German scientist who directed rocket research in Germany during WW II. von Braun, along with many other German scientists, had been brought to the United States after WW II to assist with the United States rocket development program.

Following the appearance of the first Soviet Sputnik in October 1957, Pickering led the JPL effort which, together with a team led by Werner von Braun from the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, astonished the world with America’s prompt answer to the Soviet challenge. The Pickering-von Braun teams launched Explorer 1, America’s first satellite into earth orbit, just 83 days after receiving the President’s order to go ahead. It was a new era-the space age had begun.

Toward the end of 1958, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was formed and, although JPL remained a part of Caltech, it severed its connection to the military and became a private contractor for NASA. From a choice of three NASA space programs, manned space flight, Earth satellites and exploration of the solar system, Pickering opted for the latter. He would take JPL where none had gone before, into deep space to carry out NASA’s massive program for the exploration of the solar system and its planets.

Under Pickering’s benevolent but demanding direction, JPL went from success to success, in an amazing succession of ambitious programs to explore the mysteries of deep space, and to beat the Russians to it. JPL-built spacecraft sent back the first close-up photographs of the lunar surface, others journeyed far beyond the moon to examine Venus in 1963, and later, in 1965, still others returned the first close-up views of the surface of Mars. They saw no canals or Martians. Instead, they found craters and canyons and enormous mountains. Time Magazine honoured him with a cover picture to mark the occasion of each of the journeys to Venus and Mars. Later in his tenure at JPL even more ambitious space missions made soft landings on the moon and on Mars to gather a plethora of new science about the surface features of those bodies.

His career at JPL had its high points of course, but it also had its low points. He believed that the high point was learning that the Explorer 1 satellite, America’s first, had successfully entered Earth orbit. He and von Braun celebrated together, that rainy night in Washington in January 1958. “Much later, in 1964,”he said,”I hit rock bottom when our sixth attempt to send a Ranger spacecraft to the Moon failed in the last few minutes before impacting the lunar surface. That could have been the end of both me and JPL. ”

That evening he had agreed to attend an annual JPL social function at which the Director traditionally crowned the latest “Queen of Outer Space.”Burdened with the knowledge of this latest failure to reach the Moon and its possible consequences for JPL, he entered the auditorium with a heavy heart. To his amazement, the entire audience rose to their feet and cheered him on to the stage, with shouts of encouragement to keep trying. Pickering was deeply touched. In the aftermath, JPL engineers found and corrected the problems and Pickering was able to persuade NASA to support one more try. Ranger 7 was a resounding success and JPL never looked back. He described those as “learning experiences”that paved the way for the stunning successes for the missions to Venus and Mars, “But by then,”he said,”we knew how to do it.”

In 1932, William Pickering married Muriel Bowler of Texas, an undergraduate of the University of Chicago with a Masters degree in Library Science from the University of Southern California. A son and daughter were added to the family in 1939 and 1943 respectively. Some time after Muriel’s death in 1992, William married Inez Chapman, a long-term friend and accomplished musician with family origins in North Carolina. Inez held degrees in music from University of North Carolina and Columbia University and credentials from the Julliard School of Music. She brought comfort and companionship to the later years of his life, accompanied William on most of his overseas trips, and shared enthusiastically in the accolades and honours that were bestowed upon him.

Throughout his career, William Pickering received military, civilian and academic awards and citations, too numerous to list in detail, from United States, Great Britain, Italy, France, Germany, Japan and New Zealand. President Ford awarded him the National Medal of Science, America’s highest award for science, in 1975, and in 1994 he was presented with Japan’s highest scientific honour, the Japan Prize, in the presence of the Emperor of Japan. He received an honorary knighthood from the Queen in 1976 and New Zealand’s highest public honour, the Order of New Zealand in 2003. The Royal Society of New Zealand also honored Dr Pickering by electing him an Honorary Fellow in 1964, and by instituting the Pickering Medal to recognise excellence and innovation in the practical applications of technology in 2003.

For all his public acclaim and high honours, William Pickering was a humble and modest man. He regarded his many honours with great respect, but would seldom mention them unless one enquired specifically about them. However, a privileged visitor to his home might be treated to a tour of his large, framed collection of citations and recognition from around the world.

As Director of a world-class establishment of several thousand engineers, scientists and technical support staff constantly in the media spotlight, Pickering became the voice, and the face, of JPL. In the United States and internationally, Pickering was in constant demand for speeches, addresses, interviews and lectures to institutes of higher learning, scientific bodies and organisations of all kinds. To his great credit he accepted them all-it seemed that he could not refuse an offer to speak about the space program and its influence on various aspects of modern life. He was very articulate and had the knack of making the most complex ideas on rocket propulsion or the latest scientific findings about Venus or Mars, comprehensible to his audiences. Whether it was a high school class in Pasadena or a Congressional committee in Washington, a scientific conference in Rome, an acceptance speech for an honorary doctorate or a public lecture in the Auckland Town Hall, Pickering was completely at ease, and never failed to impress his audiences. A reporter described him as,”…the gentle giant of science.”He was a communicator “par excellence,”and he loved talking to people at all levels about the wonders of space exploration.

Several recurrent themes appeared in all of his public utterances. These lines of thought reflected the breadth of his spectrum of interests and the depth of his concerns for the future well-being of his adopted country. He held no doubt that the United States could, and would, re-establish its pre-eminence over the Soviet Union in the field of space exploration, and he dedicated his outstanding talents to that end. He insisted that a measured approach to solving seemingly insurmountable problems, such as scientific exploration of distant planets, was the ultimate guarantee of success. Failure was neither excusable, nor acceptable to Pickering; one must always plan for success, he said. He believed that education, technology and scientific curiosity were necessary underpinnings of a viable society.

Following his retirement in 1976, Pickering spent several years assisting the government of Saudi Arabia to establish an institute of advanced technology in that country. Later, back in the United States, he became involved in a short-term scientific business venture that involved, amongst other things, the transfer of some space technology associated earth satellite observing systems to China. Always a very public-spirited man, Pickering lent his support and reputation to educational and historical projects, establishing a science museum for example, in the local Pasadena community. In his later years he found an outlet for his abiding interest and concern for environmental issues by founding a company to manufacture an alternative fuel for environmentally friendly, domestic heating systems in remote areas. The product, wood pellets created from heat and pressure-treated sawdust, was the antithesis of the high-tech projects that had dominated his professional life, but he was content.

At the end of his life, at age 93, he was mentally alert, and physically active, and enjoyed driving his small, environmentally friendly Japanese car with its hybrid electric/gasoline propulsion system, around La Canada, his beautiful home town in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains in California.

Despite the fact that he built his career and reputation in the United States, William Pickering never lost touch with his New Zealand roots. Over the years he made many return visits to New Zealand, and was greeted with enthusiasm and reverence on each occasion. He was generous with his media relations and all of his visits were widely reported. The William H. Pickering Scholarship for New Zealand graduates to Caltech is a tangible indication of his regard for the quality of New Zealand’s higher educational system.

In the main street of Havelock, a beautiful plaza pays tribute to the brilliant careers of two famous New Zealand scientists, William Pickering and Ernest Rutherford, both of whom received their primary education at the Havelock Primary School. The Rutherford-Pickering Memorial Plaza was dedicated on 15 March, 2003 in the presence of a large gathering of local dignitaries, townspeople and visitors including Sir William, his wife Inez, daughter Beth Pickering Mezitt and many members of his extended New Zealand family.

A few days later, at a fully attended public ceremony in the Christchurch City Hall, the University of Christchurch, with full pomp and circumstance, conferred upon him an honorary doctorate of engineering degree. In the public lecture that followed, Sir William paid tribute to the high standard of New Zealand’s university educational system and enthralled the large audience with a brief history of deep space exploration and an illustrated tour of the solar system. It was to be his final appearance in his beloved homeland. He died exactly one year later.

In his professional and public life, he gave JPL a personality and created an image that was embraced by the public and professional communities alike. He engendered loyalty, dedication, and above all, the pursuit of excellence, in all who came within his sphere of influence. To those who knew him, and those that worked for him he was, in the truest sense, a hero.

His passing in March 2004 was noted in the media throughout the world. A spokesman for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration said, ”He brought a vision and a passion to space exploration that was remarkable. His pioneering work is the very foundation we have built upon to explore our solar system and beyond.”The Director of JPL called him, “One of the titan’s of our nation’s space program.”

In Pasadena, the California Institute of Technology honoured William Pickering with a public Memorial Service in its beautiful Beckman Auditorium. Among many eulogies to William Pickering that graced that day, that of The Honorable Darryl Dunn, New Zealand’s Consul-General, bore eloquent tribute to his native roots. Invoking the imagery of New Zealand’s Māori he said, ”Tēnei te tama kahurangi o Aotearoa te makere atu nei. Ngarue ana te whenua, ngaoko ana te moana I te hinganga o ngā tōtara whakahae o te wao-New Zealand has lost a beloved son. The land trembles and the sea stirs, when the sheltering totara tree of the forest falls.”

In his personal life, as in his professional life and in his contribution to the world of science and technology, William Pickering set an example for all who follow that is epitomised in the motto of his beloved Wellington College;

Lumen Accipe et Imperti: Accept the Light (of knowledge) and pass it on.

– Douglas J. Mudgway

Sonoma, California

Wikipedia Biographical Summary:

"...William Hayward Pickering (24 December 1910 — 15 March 2004) was a New Zealand born rocket scientist who headed Pasadena, California's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) for 22 years, retiring in 1976. He was a senior NASA luminary and pioneered the exploration of space..."

SOURCE: Wikipedia contributors, 'William Hayward Pickering', Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 11 September 2011, 16:41 UTC, <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=William_Hayward_Pickering&oldid=449846772> [accessed 24 September 2011]


"...William H. Pickering, Former Director of JPL, Dies. March 16, 2004

"...Dr. William H. Pickering, a central figure in the U.S. space race and former director of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., from 1954 to 1976, has died.

Pickering -- known affectionately as "Mr. JPL" and an original "Rocket Man," and one of few public figures to appear twice on the cover of Time magazine -- passed away Monday of pneumonia at his home in La Canada Flintridge, Calif. He was 93..."

"...He is survived by his wife, Inez Chapman Pickering, and a daughter, Elizabeth Pickering Mezitt. His son, William Balfour Pickering, passed away one day before Dr. Pickering's death..."

SOURCE: Jet Propulsion Labs 1984 News Releases. Retrieved from http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/releases/2004/86.cfm on Sept 23, 2011.

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William H. Pickering's Timeline

December 24, 1910
Wellington, New Zealand
March 14, 2004
Age 93
La Cañada Flintridge, CA, USA