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
spaceand 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,
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 earths orbit, the sky was, literally,
the limit. He worked at marrying the possibilities of technology
with humanitys 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,
The Road to Caltech
he started boarding at Wellington College. His father, a
pharmacist, had left New Zealand to work in the tropics,
an environment he didnt believe was a healthy one
for his sons. Pickering was inspired by his math teacher,
A. C. Pop Gifford. Mr. Gifford founded the schools
observatory, the place where young Pickering first looked
through a telescope towards the heavens.
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.
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
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 telemetrythe
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 Labs 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
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
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 governments bruised
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
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.
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.
Van Allen and Von Braun hold a model of Explorer 1,
February 1, 1958. America had entered the space race.
neednt 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 Pickerings 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 Explorers scientific discoveries were secondary
in the minds of the American public. What they felt was
equal parts fear and wonder: Explorers 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 Earths
2. Deep space missions to explore the solar systems; and
3. The development of manned space travel.
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 Kennedys 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 wasnt until 1962 when the
JPL-designed Mariner II powered to Venus that America could
claim a significant first.'
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
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.
as Time wrote, the fact that Pickering and his team
sent Mariner to Venus, was as massive an accomplishment
as the findings themselves:
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
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 JPLs 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 Mariners 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 spacecrafts 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
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. Rangers observations
disproved this, and led the way for Neil Armstrongs
first steps on the Moons surface.
Accolades from Presidents, Queen
1976, William Pickering receives his knighthood. (Permission
of The Dominion, Wellington)
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 woodchipsclean, 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 US 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:
than any other individual, Bill Pickering was responsible
for Americas success in exploring the planetsan
endeavour that demanded vision, courage, dedication, expertise
and the ability to inspire two generations of scientists
and engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory."
Dr. Pickerings affiliation has long been with the
Throop Memorial Church of Pasadena, a congregation allied
with the Unitarian Universalist movement.