William H. Pickering, Former Director of JPL, Dies

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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.

"Dr. Pickering was one of the titans of our nation's space program," said Dr. Charles Elachi, the current director of JPL. "It was his leadership that took America into space and opened up the moon and planets to the world."

"He brought a vision and passion to space exploration that was remarkable," said Dr. Ed Weiler, NASA's associate administrator for space science. "His pioneering work is the very foundation we have built upon to explore our solar system and beyond."

In 1958, as director of JPL, Pickering led the successful effort to place the first U.S. satellite, Explorer 1, into Earth orbit. Following on the success of Explorer 1, Pickering was instrumental in leading a new era of robotic space exploration, including the first missions to the moon and the planets.

Dr. Pickering began at JPL in 1944, at a time when the Laboratory was developing missile systems for the U.S. Army. He organized the electronics efforts at JPL to support guided missile research and development, becoming project manager for Corporal, the first operational missile JPL developed. It was not a simple project. In an interview in 1994, Pickering joked about the trials and tribulations of testing the early guidance systems.

"For the 100th Corporal that we tested, I pushed the [launch] button -- and the darn thing went east instead of north. I never pushed the button again," he recalled. Eventually, under Pickering’s direction, the Sergeant solid-propellant missile was designed and developed at JPL.

In 1954, Pickering was named director of JPL, and he soon had his hands full with the space race. Following the first Soviet Sputnik launch, JPL and the Army Ballistic Missile Agency were given the assignment in November 1957 to place the first U.S. satellite in orbit. Pickering directed the JPL effort, which, in just 83 days, provided the satellite, telecommunications, and the upper rocket stages that lofted Explorer 1 into orbit on January 31, 1958. It was considered one of Pickering’s greatest achievements and laid the groundwork for future robotic exploration of the moon and planets.

In 1975, Dr. Pickering recalled the achievement of Explorer 1 and its impact on a new era of space exploration. "The event was symbolic of the mixing process between engineering and science, between the world and the research laboratory ... it had mixed rocket technology with the universe, and reduced astronautics to practice at last."

Under Pickering the Laboratory, managed by the California Institute of Technology, was transferred from the jurisdiction of the Army to the newly created National Aeronautics and Space Administration in 1958. Under the new agency, family members recall, he was given the choice of heading either human or robotic space exploration, and chose the latter. In succeeding years, JPL conducted an intensive series of space probes -- Ranger and Surveyor missions to the moon, and the Mariner missions to Earth’s neighboring planets.

On December 14, 1962, the Mariner 2 spacecraft successfully completed a flyby of the planet Venus, culminating a 109-day journey of more than 290 million kilometers (180 million miles): humankind’s first penetration to the vicinity of another planet. On July 14, 1965, following a 228-day journey of more than 525 million kilometers (325 million miles) by Mariner 4, Dr. Pickering’s team obtained the first close-up pictures of Mars. Four more Mariner missions reached Venus and Mars before Pickering retired from JPL in 1976.

On January 1, 1963, following the successful flyby of Venus by the Mariner 2 spacecraft, Pickering rode as Grand Marshall of the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena. His two appearances on the cover of Time magazine were in 1963 and again in 1965 following Mariner IV’s encounter with Mars.

Dr. Pickering was honored by numerous awards throughout his career, including NASA’s Distinguished Service Medal. In 1975, he was awarded the National Medal of Science by President Gerald Ford, and in 1976 he was given honorary knighthood from the Queen of England. He also named to the Order of New Zealand, that country's highest honor. He also received awards from numerous science and engineering societies.

Pickering was born in Wellington, New Zealand in 1910 and immigrated to the United States in 1929 to study at Caltech. He obtained his bachelors and masters degrees in electrical engineering, then a Ph.D. in physics from Caltech before becoming a professor of electrical engineering there in 1946. Pickering became a U.S. citizen in 1941.

A memorial service will be held Saturday, March 20, at 3 p.m. in Beckman Auditorium on the Caltech campus in Pasadena. The family has requested that in lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the William H. Pickering Scholarship for New Zealand Graduate Students at Caltech.

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

Veronica McGregor (818) 354-9452
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

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