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Pickering, William (1910-2004)


William Pickering

William Pickering, Rocket Man.

The launch of Sputnik in 1957 forced the United States into the space race. Fighting in the Cold War the Americans needed to show the world that they too could launch a rocket into space—and they had to do it quickly. Less than three months later Explorer 1 was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The man behind it: William Pickering from Wellington, New Zealand.

In the next ten years Pickering went on to be a central figure in the American space race. Once he and his team conquered the earth’s orbit, the sky was, literally, the limit. He worked at marrying the possibilities of technology with humanity’s wonderment at outer space and, by sending spacecraft to the far edges of the solar system, made us more aware of the galaxy we live in.

William Hayward Pickering was born in Roxburgh Street, Mount Victoria, Wellington in 1910. His mother died when he was six and he was sent to live with his grandparents in Havelock, in the Marlborough Sounds at the northern tip of the South Island. Here Pickering attended Havelock Primary School, the first school of the greatest New Zealand scientist, Ernest Rutherford.

The Road to Caltech

In 1923 he started boarding at Wellington College. His father, a pharmacist, had left New Zealand to work in the tropics, an environment he didn’t believe was a healthy one for his sons. Pickering was inspired by his math teacher, A. C. ‘Pop’ Gifford. Mr. Gifford founded the school’s observatory, the place where young Pickering first looked through a telescope towards the heavens.

Pickering’s ability to marry practical and theoretical science was coached at Wellington College. With schoolmate Fred White (later Dr. F. White CBE, CEO of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization) Pickering built an early radio station. The two communicated using Morse code with others around the world.

After high school Pickering studied engineering at Canterbury University. He completed one year of study before an uncle (who divided his time between living in New Zealand and California), encouraged him to apply to the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). Although a new university, Caltech already had an excellent reputation for science and engineering.

He completed a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1932, and returned to New Zealand after receiving his Ph.D. in Physics in 1936, hoping to work as an engineer. Unable to find satisfactory employment he returned to education and to California, and joined the Caltech faculty.

He returned to Caltech to teach electrical engineering, was made professor in charge of radio and electronics and also appointed to the Scientific Advisory Board of the United States Air Force. As the Cold War unfolded the link between academic and research organizations, and the military grew. Caltech, along with MIT, Berkeley, University of Chicago and other notable American institutions, was no different.

JPL and Explorer 1

William Pickering, 1965

William Pickering, 1965

During World War II Pickering had also become involved in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Jet technology was comparatively new to Caltech, but war was to quickly advance jet technology from theory to reality. The American military knew it and enlisted the aid of academic institutions. Pickering initially became involved with the Lab through his studies into telemetry—the art of receiving data from a distant instrument.

In 1950 he finished lecturing and began working with JPL full time. By 1954 he was the Lab’s Director. His rise to the top had to do with both how well he knew science and how well he knew scientists. His role of director was a multifaceted one: not only was his scientific and technical expertise to the fore, but his antipodean diplomacy was required to lead not only volatile and brilliant scientists, but also work with politicians and the military hierarchy during the pressure cooker political environment of the Cold War.

Sputnik and the Race For Space

On October 4, 1957 the Soviet Union launched Sputnik. After 10 years of Cold War the Soviets had beaten the Americans into space. Circling the globe every 90 minutes, Sputnik contained a beeping transmitter that could be received by any short wave radio on earth. The American public knew it was there.

In a 1993 lecture Pickering gave at the University of Michigan, he said the launch of Sputnik was no secret. In 1955 both the Soviet and American governments had announced their intentions to experiment with satellites. If the public was not listening when these announcements were made, two years later they certainly heard the sound of a sinister Sputnik coming over the airwaves above middle America. Or as Pickering said: “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.”

The Americans were working to match Sputnik. In two months the Naval Research Laboratory launched the Vanguard. A test launch, on December 7th, 1957, was to be viewed under the glare of the international media.

Vanguard blew up on the launchpad.

Fortunately, Pickering and the JPL had been working since Sputnik on their own satellite. If their launch went successfully it would repair some of the American government’s bruised ego.

Explorer 1 was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida on January 31, 1958, less than four months after Sputnik. It stayed orbiting the earth for the next 10 years.

The Cold War Heats Up

Working with Pickering was a cosmic ray expert from the University of Iowa, Dr. James Van Allen, and Dr. von Braun, the German rocket scientist who was the mastermind behind the deadly V2 rocket that devastated London during World War II. Pickering was the Lab Director; he had to bring these two geniuses together for a common goal in an incredibly short time frame, while breathing down their necks was the government, the Pentagon and the patriot demands of the American people.

Washington, DC was cold and wet the night of February 1st, 1958, hours after the successful launch of Explorer 1. Pickering, Van Allen and von Braun drove through the windswept, deserted streets between the Pentagon and the National Academy of Sciences knowing the importance of what they had achieved, but uncertain about how much interest, outside of scientific circles, it would generate.

Pickering, Van Allen, and Von Braun

Pickering, Van Allen and Von Braun hold a model of Explorer 1, February 1, 1958. America had entered the space race.

They needn’t have been concerned. Despite the inclement weather and the fact it was after midnight, a press gang had turned out in force to question the trio. A photo from the press conference of the men holding a model of Explorer 1 represents both the entry of America in the space race and William Pickering’s proudest moment.

Explorer 1 made the discovery that a radiation belt circled the Earth. This would become known as the Van Allen Belt. A later satellite, Explorer III, launched in December 1958, discovered a second radiation belt at a much higher altitude. Yet Explorer’s scientific discoveries were secondary in the minds of the American public. What they felt was equal parts fear and wonder: Explorer’s launch was the starting shot of the space race. The Cold War had immediately become more intense. The conquest of space, the last frontier, had, for America, begun.

Venus and Mars

In 1958 Congress passed the Space Act that established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). NASA established the broad categories of space work. These were:

1. Near Earth Satellites. To make measurements of the Earth from space; to explore the near Earth space environment; and explore the cosmos from observing points above the Earth’s atmosphere;

2. Deep space missions to explore the solar systems; and

3. The development of manned space travel.

Pickering said in 1993: “JPL argued for, and received, a charter to develop the deep space missions. As a personal aside, I was delighted to hold a contract that said in essence ‘go out and explore the depths of the solar system’.”

From Wellington to Venus

Despite the aggressive approach taken by the US Government at the time, and continued after John Kennedy’s election in 1960, America’s progress in space was slower than the Soviets who were sending more powerful rockets into space and orbiting the moon. It wasn’t until 1962 when the JPL-designed Mariner II powered to Venus that America could claim a significant ‘first.’Pickering on "Time"

With Explorer I, Pickering helped America take its first tentative steps towards the darkness of space. With Mariner II he and his team were sprinting hard into the great unknown. The American public, bubbling over with optimism and confidence during the prosperous Camelot days, were enthralled.

Pickering was pictured on the cover of Time Magazine on March 8, 1963. William Pickering: from Roxburgh Street to Venus.

Venus, close and of similar size to Earth, had long fascinated astronomers, scientists and science fictioneers. Unfortunately for the latter, Venus turned out to be a hot, dry and dead place with the only place possible of sustaining life being the relatively cool clouds, and any life it could sustain, a highly remote possibility, would be dust-size micro-organisms.

Yet, as Time wrote, the fact that Pickering and his team sent Mariner to Venus, was as massive an accomplishment as the findings themselves:

“The very fact that Mariner carried its intricate cargo so far, made so many observations and radioed its reports to Earth with such singular success marks the most important accomplishment in the annals of space exploration. It is a proud first for the US. No achievements by Russian cosmonaut or US astronaut, nor experiment made by any of the myriad other satellites that have been shot aloft has taught man nearly so much as he has learned already from the improbable voyage of Mariner II.”

Pickering and Johnson

Pickering presents photos from the Mariner mission to President Johnson.

The following year, on November 28, 1964, Mariner IV was launched towards Mars. On July 23, 1965, Pickering was, once again, on the cover of Time.

From the Time story: “While the world watched and waited the ambitious timetable of US space exploration has been put to its most demanding test. And the undulating whine of JPL’s computers seemed to change subtly into a cry of exaltation. Mariner had made it.”

“This was the triumphant climax of an eight-month experiment. The picture pulsing back across the far reaches of space marked the final payoff. For those pictures, JPL boss William Pickering and his crew had sweated out Mariner’s launch from a Cape Kennedy rocket pad; the agile combination of men and computers in the Pasadena lab had solved complex equations of trajectory with split-second precision; the members of the Mariner team had kept a close watch as they monitored their spacecraft’s every signal.”

Mariner had travelled 325 million miles in 228 days. The computers it carried were early-1960s technology, hardly comparable to personal computers today. It showed the world photographs of the Martian surface: the first real look at the red planet that humanity has had since the beginning of time.

The 1960s began with Kennedy declaring that by the end of the decade men would walk on the moon. With only six months of the decade remaining, they did. Pickering now rates as one of his major achievements the Ranger VII spacecraft that returned the first pictures of the lunar surface in 1966. Before this many scientists believed the Moon was covered in a thick layer of dust. Ranger’s observations disproved this, and led the way for Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the Moon’s surface.

Accolades from Presidents, Queen

Pickering knighted

In 1976, William Pickering receives his knighthood. Courtesy of The Dominion, Wellington.

Pickering retired from JPL in 1976 at the age of 66. He returned briefly to Caltech, before taking up a two-year teaching post in Saudi Arabia. At the age of 68 he returned to the United States with the intention of working on a commercial venture into solar energy. Instead he became director of a company that manufactures processed woodchips—clean, safe and highly efficient energy. It is not as spectacular as deep space exploration, but he is still involved in the transfer and harnessing of energy and power.

While he has been a U.S. citizen since 1941, Pickering keeps close ties with New Zealand. He has a painting of Mt. Cook in his office, retains the faint twinges of a Kiwi accent in his voice, and has been given an honorary knighthood from the Queen. The knighthood sits beside American accolades including personal messages from five U.S. presidents. In 1975 Pickering was awarded the prestigous National Medal of Science by President Gerald R. Ford, and in 1994 he was awarded the Japan Prize by His Majesty, the Emperor of Japan.

In 1993 Pickering was awarded the inaugural Francois-Xavier Bagnoud Aerospace Prize for his contribution to space science. In presenting him with the Prize the then president of Caltech Thomas E. Everhart said:

“More than any other individual, Bill Pickering was responsible for America’s success in exploring the planets—an endeavour that demanded vision, courage, dedication, expertise and the ability to inspire two generations of scientists and engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.”

— From The New Zealand Edge

A Note on Unitarian Universalist Connections

Dr. Pickering’s affiliation has long been with the Throop Memorial Church of Pasadena, a congregation allied with the Unitarian Universalist movement.

Resources Recommended by Harvard Square Library

Kruger, Jeffrey. Journey Beyond Selene: Remarkable Expeditions Past Our Moon and to the Ends of the Solar System. New York: Simon Schuster, 1999.

Scheffer, James. The Race: The Complete True Story of How America Beat Russia to the Moon. New York: Doubleday, 1999.


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