WILLIAM HAYWARD PICKERING
Elected in 1964 (Founding Member)
BY JOHN R. CASANI
Lumen accipe et imperti: Accept the light (of knowledge) and pass it on.
– Motto of Wellington College, the school that ignited William Pickering’s interest in science and technology
“More than any other individual, Bill Pickering was responsible for America’s success in exploring the planets— an endeavor that demanded vision, courage, dedication, expertise and the ability to inspire two generations of scientists and engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.”
– Thomas Everhart, President Emeritus, California Institute of Technology
WILLIAM HAYWARD PICKERING—“MR. JPL,” the original “Rocket Man,” America’s deep space pioneer, director of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL; 1954–1976), and California Institute of Technology (Caltech) professor of electrical engineering, emeritus—died on March 15, 2004. He lived a life that was nearly beyond belief, as William Pickering’s love for science, mathematics, and technology launched him on a career that the young Pickering could only begin to imagine: a leading role in opening the Space Age, the guiding force behind the launch of the first U.S. satellite and the exploration of distant planets.
Pickering was born on December 24, 1910, in Wellington, New Zealand. Always a successful student, his interest in amateur radio led him to pursue a degree in engineering. In 1929, after a year at Canterbury College in Christchurch (alma mater of Ernest Rutherford), the young Pickering was persuaded by his uncle to enroll at Caltech—where he earned his bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering (1932), master of science (1933), and Ph.D. in physics (1936). While a student at Caltech, Pickering married Muriel Bower. He joined the Caltech faculty in 1936, becoming a full professor of electrical engineering in 1946. Naturalized as a U.S. citizen in February 1941, Pickering retained his dual citizenship—and his love for both his birth country and his adopted country—all of his life.
During World War II, Pickering conducted research with Robert A. Millikan on the absorption properties of cosmic rays and investigated countermeasures for Japanese balloon warfare techniques for the Army Air Corps. Because of his experience in designing telemetering devices, Pickering was invited to join JPL in 1944; in 1947 his frequency modulation telemetry system for transmitting data from rockets was adopted as the federal standard. By that time, Bill and Muriel had two children: a son, William Balfour, who, sadly, died two days before his father; and a daughter, Anne Elizabeth “Beth” (now married to Wayne Mezitt).
At JPL, Pickering headed the Corporal and Sergeant missile programs, leading JPL’s extensive efforts to develop the first operational surface-to-surface guided ballistic missile for the U.S. Army. Years later, in 1965, he and Robert J. Parks were issued U.S. Patent 3,179,355 for the basic concept of a guidance and control system for the Corporal missile. 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.
In 1954, Pickering succeeded Louis Dunn as the JPL Director. About the same time, Pickering became a member of
the International Geophysical Year (IGY) committee, created by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to consider U.S. options for IGY participation. Pickering headed a working group on tracking and satellite orbit computation and was a member of an IGY technical panel for an Earth satellite program. In 1957—while a delegate to an NAS-hosted international conference (sponsored by Comite Speciale de l’Annee Geophysique International) for IGY rocket and satellite program planning—Pickering learned that the Soviets had successfully launched Sputnik 1.
Pickering and his JPL team had long been ready to modify their existing upper-stage rocket motors to put a satellite into orbit. Recognizing the value of adding science to the project, Pickering had worked with James Van Allen to include his cosmic ray instrument on the satellite. All they needed to proceed was authorization from the U.S. Army. Late in 1957, faced with public humiliation after the U.S. Navy’s favored Vanguard rocket exploded on lift-off, President Dwight D. Eisenhower directed JPL and the Army Ballistic Missile Agency to place the first American satellite into orbit. So it was that Explorer 1 was famously launched on January 31, 1958—and William Hayward Pickering was thrust into the international spotlight. In no small measure, the success was due to Pickering’s remarkable ability to unite scientists and engineers in common purpose. Years later, in 1975, Pickering recalled the achievement of Explorer 1 and its impact on the new era of space exploration. “The event was symbolic of the mixing process between engineering and science, between the world and the research laboratory… [I]t had mixed rocket technology with the universe, and reduced astronautics to practice at last.” A charismatic and compelling speaker, he exploited his “overnight success” to foster public support for the space program.
At the Caltech memorial service for Dr. Pickering, fellow National Academy of Engineering member Eberhardt Rechtin recalled that the Explorer I launch—not 1963—was also the “real” birth of the Deep Space Network. Pickering, Rechtin said, understood how important the Explorer 1 flight would
be. When the Army declared a tracking system unnecessary, Pickering had Rechtin send tracking stations to British Commonwealth friends around the world—thereby creating the first international network. As Rechtin said, “It was the Nigerian station that first heard the signals from Explorer that told us of the existence of the Van Allen ionization belts.”
The Explorer 1 launch made for a heady time, too, for the Pickering family. “I do remember the suddenness with which he stepped into the limelight,” recalls daughter Beth. “He flew home about 24 hours after Explorer 1 was launched. Mom and I had to wait while the reporters surrounded him as he got off the airplane. That was impressive! And then the next day, he brought home a telegram from the White House inviting Mom and him, along with [Wernher] von Braun and Van Allen to a state dinner three days later. I remember the hysteria as Mom and I dashed out to the stores to find her an appropriate dress. It was all incredibly exciting. I also remember my Dad realizing that the fuss was too centered around him. He worried that those who did the actual work weren’t getting enough credit; after that, he started stepping aside at the news conferences and letting others tell the story.”
In December 1958, JPL was transferred to the newly created NASA; soon thereafter, NASA leaders assigned responsibility for robotic exploration of the Moon and planets to JPL. Pickering said in 1993 that “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.’”
With JPL as part of NASA, Pickering’s family could more fully share in his work. “I didn’t know what he was up to until NASA took on the lab,” Beth said recently, “but once his work became public he was full of interesting stories about the JPL projects. The visits to Washington were sometimes stressful, but on the whole he absolutely loved his role. Growing up with him was wonderful, and we would have the most wonderful conversations about all sorts of things. He was enthusiastic about my homework when I was in school, about my projects in college, and later about my chosen role as wife
and mother. He was well versed on so many topics and always had interesting anecdotes or recent articles to discuss.”
The transfer of JPL to NASA was the beginning of a glorious era. In 1958, Explorer 1’s success had propelled Pickering and his team to international prominence. Less than 20 years later, when he retired as director of JPL, he not only had been a significant and public catalyst for U.S. spacecraft visits to the Moon, Venus, Mars, and Jupiter, but he had also been a major contributor in the preparations for what would be the twin Voyagers’ grand tour of the solar system.
Throughout his career, Pickering actively participated in the work of the National Academies, beginning with his contributions to the IGY, which continued until the group was discharged in 1964. In 1962, Pickering was elected to the National Academy of Science (Engineering Section), and he was inducted as a founding member of the National Academy of Engineering in 1964. He served on many NAS and NAE committees: an NAS/National Research Council ad hoc panel on scientific potential and practicability of small planetary probes (chaired by Van Allen), the NAE Subcommittee on Information, the NAE Committee on Telecommunications (including its Panel on Urban Communications and, as co-chair of the Urban Communications Subpanel on Environment and Health), and the NAE Committee on Public Engineering Policy and its Panel on Electronics Engineering. He was a member of the NAE 1966 Autumn Meeting Program Committee on engineering education and the NAE Nominating Committee. He was the NASA representative to the NAS Committee on Vision, and he encouraged the NAE to join with NAS to administer the Resident Research Associateships, a program of short-term residencies at JPL for university faculty. He briefly served on the NAS/NAE joint Committee on Scientific and Technical Communication (SATCOM), established in 1966 at the request of the National Science Foundation. Although he was unavailable to participate as fully as he would have liked, Pickering offered JPL ad hoc support in areas of secondary information services and data assemblies.
Pickering also contributed extensively to other professional aeronautics and astronautics societies—in many cases serving as president—including Fédération Internationale d’Astronautique, an exclusive organization that awarded Pickering the 1965 Le Prix Galabert d’astronautique; the American Astronautics Society; and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), created in 1963 via the merger of the American Rocket Society—of which Pickering was also president—and the Institute of Aerospace Science. AIAA recognized Pickering’s contributions to aerospace technology with the 1969 Louis B. Hill Award, the 1986 Aerospace Award, and, in 2004, the inauguration of the William H. Pickering lecture series. Pickering was also a member and governor of the National Space Club (founded in 1957 as the National Rocket Club), a member of the Aero Club of Washington, president of the American Rocket Society, and a member of the federal Commission on Engineering Education. Through these activities he actively promoted international collaboration, education, and the application of science and engineering to the common good.
Pickering’s science and engineering contributions did not end with his retirement from JPL. After a brief return to Caltech, he accepted a two-year post as the first director of the Research Institutes, University of Petroleum and Minerals, Saudi Arabia. Interested in promoting the influence of American technology in Saudia Arabia, Pickering returned to California in 1978 and established the Pickering Research Corporation, a nonprofit company that provided research and development support to the Kingdom of Saudia Arabia; consultation on reliability, safety, and failure reporting to the nonprofit Electric Power Research Institute; and remote-sensing computer-aided image processing systems in the United States and at the Beijing Research Institute, China. In 1983, Pickering, interested in alternative fuels, formed Lignetics, Inc., to manufacture wood pellets from wood waste for use in home heating. Never losing interest in the space program, Pickering was a frequent visitor at JPL, and he was among the honored guests when the rovers Spirit and Opportunity landed on Mars in January 2004.
On the home front, Bill and Muriel, who was highly regarded in her own right, were happily married for nearly 60 years; it was a great loss not only to Bill but also to the community when she died in 1992. In 1994, Bill Pickering married a long-time family friend, Inez Chapman, a wonderful and caring woman who contributed in no small measure to his happiness in the ten years before he died.
William Hayward Pickering was extensively honored throughout his lifetime, from the 1959 U.S. Army’s Distinguished Civilian Service Decoration, to the 1966 Order of Merit of the Republic of Italy, to the 1993 inaugural François-Xavier Bagnoud Aerospace Prize for his contribution to space science, and the 2004 unveiling of the Rutherford–Pickering memorial in Havelock, New Zealand. He was recognized extensively by the engineering community with, for example, the 1962 George Washington Medal for Engineering Achievement, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers 1965 Spirit of St. Louis Medal, the U.S. Space Club 1965 Robert H. Goddard Memorial Trophy, and the prestigious British Interplanetary Society’s special memento in 1969 to honor his work on Mariners 6 and 7. He was also honored by scientific societies (through such recognitions as the Scientific Research Society of America 1965 Proctor Prize and the American Philosophical Society 1966 Magellanic Premium), academia (which conferred several honorary doctorates in the United States and New Zealand), and charitable and civic organizations (such as the Los Angeles Philanthropic Association’s 1969 Outstanding American award). Pickering was especially pleased to be one of the few nonpoliticians featured twice on the cover of Time, in recognition of the Mariner missions to Venus (1963) and to Mars (1965). Many of his honors created wonderful memories for his wife and children, such as their car ride together down Colorado Boulevard when Pickering was honored as the grand marshal of the 1963 Tournament of Roses Parade.
Pickering was also honored by leaders worldwide. In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson presented him with the NASA Distinguished Service Medal, and the Institution of Professional Engineers New Zealand bestowed an Honorary Fellowship.
Also in Pickering’s honor, IPENZ established a series of free public lectures—the Pickering Lectures—with topics selected to interest a broad range of people, including high school students. In 1976, President Gerald Ford presented him with the National Medal of Science, the nation’s highest honor for engineering excellence—possibly Pickering’s most highly treasured recognition. Daughter Beth, recalls the ceremony “when Wayne, our children, and I were driven right to the White House door to attend the presentation.” Also in 1976, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II of England invested Pickering as Honorary Knight Commander of the Civil Division of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in recognition of his services to science; in 2003, the government of New Zealand conferred its highest national honor, the Order of New Zealand, on Sir William. Emperor Akihito presented Pickering with the prestigious 1994 Japan Prize for Aerospace Technologies.
As far-reaching as the honors were, however, The New York Times correctly observed, “None of these honors … can add any luster to the stature he has acquired in ‘nearly accomplishing the impossible.’” Nor can they add luster to the esteem, reverence, respect, and warmth with which Pickering to this day is held by his colleagues. It is no small part of Pickering’s legacy that he worked tirelessly to create a work environment that would attract and retain the best scientists and engineers. An article summarizing Pickering’s career through Mariner 4 (“The Quiet Coach of the Pasadena Professionals,” Challenge, a publication of General Electric Co., circa Fall 1965) celebrates him as a man of great composure:
Keenly alert to all aspects of his complicated technical life, yet seemingly unshaken by frustration, or setbacks, Dr. Pickering maintains a calm that is an inspiration to those who work for him. He’s the man you want to direct traffic in a tornado. You’d like him to bat with two out in the ninth and the winning run on second. “This man probably violates every managerial concept of the image of a tough, driving boss,” says one associate. “He’s
gentle, thoughtful, persuasive and convincing. He gets tough jobs done and creates a positive spirit doing it.”
What is William Pickering’s legacy, his greatest achievement? The answers to that question may be as numerous as his many honors. For example, Pickering not only put in place the organization that quickly launched Explorer 1 but also had the foresight to include a science instrument on the satellite: Van Allen’s Geiger counter, which returned the first major scientific discovery of the space race—that the Earth is surrounded by intense bands of radiation. Many consider it to be Pickering’s greatest achievement that he created the opportunity to discover the Van Allen belts, thus setting the stage for future space exploration. However, in July 1969, after an American had walked on the Moon, Pickering said that his major achievement was not Explorer 1 but rather the first lunar surface pictures returned by the Ranger 7 spacecraft in 1966. The images showed that the Moon was not, as commonly thought, covered in a thick layer of dust; those images thereby cleared the way for Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the lunar surface.
Others consider his most memorable contribution to be his advocacy for strengthening science and math education in U.S. schools. This topic not only informed his NAS, NAE, and other professional activities but was also a familiar theme in his many invited speeches. He made the most of every opportunity to promote educational and technical excellence—rather than weapons—as the way out of the Cold War.
Or perhaps his greatest legacy is his ability to inspire others to work together. Pickering’s relationship with the political administration was often strained, and he daily faced the demanding expectations of the American military and the public pressure to “beat” the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, he successfully guided a diverse team of scientists and engineers; and he exploited every opportunity to encourage the engineering, scientific, political, civil, and social communities to unite in common purpose. Consequently, after Mariner 4 arrived at Mars on July 14, 1965, The New York Times suggested
that, because of his calls for a truly unified national space program, “… it is possible that Dr. Pickering’s greatest contribution has been to inject constructive guidance into both governmental and public thinking about the space effort.”
His daughter agrees. “My father had a deep-seated curiosity for the science, brilliance for the engineering, and a quick and open mind to understand the ideas and problems. But his great contribution after JPL was transferred to NASA was his ability to understand the work being done and to understand the culture in which the work would flourish, all while taking the administrative reins, protecting the culture, and being the political face of the lab. His patience, tact, diplomacy, respect for others around him, ability to teach, calm demeanor, and sense of purpose enabled him to generate enthusiasm for the possibilities among the politicians and to get the lab the funding it needed.”
Pickering biographer Douglas J. Mudgway, describing the Caltech memorial service, further reveals Pickering’s personal legacy. “[All] praised his gentleness, avid determination to succeed, his concern for humanity, and, above all, they praised him for his integrity and adherence to the fundamental principles of scientific inquiry. ‘In his personal life as in his professional life in the world of space science and technology,’ they said, ‘William Pickering had set standards of excellence that would be an example for all that would surely follow.’” True to the education that had inspired him, William Hayward Pickering had accepted the light of knowledge and passed it on—and so it is that he continues to inspire the world to reach for the stars.