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JPL Director, 1954 - 1976 printer-icon  Print this page
Pickering with President Johnson
  In July 1965, at a White House ceremony, JPL Director Pickering (left) helped present a picture of Mars taken by Mariner 4 to President Lyndon B. Johnson.
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William Hayward Pickering, fourth director of JPL, was its longest-serving to date.  Pickering was born in Wellington, New Zealand in 1910.  A radio enthusiast since childhood, he emigrated to the United States in 1929 to study electrical engineering at Caltech.  Under the guidance of physicist Robert A .Millikan, however, he decided to earn his Ph.D. in physics instead, and began his professional career as part of Millikan’s cosmic ray research team.  He was appointed professor of electrical engineering, and during World War II taught electrical and electronics courses to Navy officers in the V-12 program.

Pickering’s specialty within Millikan’s cosmic ray group had been telemetry.  This involved developing electronic devices that sent data from altitude balloons to the ground via radio; on the strength of this expertise, he was asked to join the JPL staff part-time in 1944.  He established JPL’s telemetry and remote control research group.  In 1950, he moved to JPL full-time, managing the development of the Corporal missile.

Shortly after Louis Dunn resigned in August 1954, Caltech president DuBridge appointed Pickering director of JPL.  He stayed in this post 22 years, retiring April 1, 1976.  During his tenure, JPL changed radically.  Pickering wanted very much to move the lab out of the weapons business during the late 1950s, and the Soviet launch of Sputnik gave him the opportunity.  After JPL’s successful launch of America’s first satellite, Explorer 1, he was able to win JPL’s transfer from the Army to NASA.  In December 1958, JPL became the only NASA center managed by an educational institution.  Under Pickering’s leadership, JPL became America’s primary institution for planetary exploration.

As NASA’s planetary program shrank in the early 1970s, Pickering moved JPL into a new research field, civil systems.  This included many small and medium-sized efforts in biomedicine, management systems for police and fire departments, and urban transportation.

Pickering was also very active in the larger aerospace community.  He spent several years advocating and planning for the merger of the American Rocket Society and the Institute of Aeronautical Sciences into the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics in 1963.  He also served as the new organization’s first president.

After his retirement from JPL, Pickering established a new research institute at Saudi Arabia’s College of Petroleum and Minerals and then Pickering Research Corp., a consulting business.  In 1983, he formed Lignetics Inc., a manufacturer of wood pellets for use as fuel, and remained involved with it until his death in March 2004.




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