William H. Pickering

NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

December 24, 1910 - March 15, 2004

Election Year: 1962
Scientific Discipline: Engineering Sciences
Membership Type: Member

William Pickering was a pioneering figure in the history of space flight. During his time as director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL), he oversaw the development of Explorer I, the first U.S. satellite placed into orbit, and Explorer III, the satellite that confirmed the existence of the Van Allen radiation belt; and he later laid the groundwork for NASA’s Mariner and Voyager deep space missions. Pickering had developed a keen understanding of rocketry as head of the Corporal and Sergeant missile programs at JPL and had developed an advanced telemetry system for sending data from rockets to Earth, which later became the government standard. This knowledge, along with his solid organizational and leadership skills, allowed him to work with the scientists, engineers, congressmen, and government bodies necessary for the development of the U. S. space program.

After attending a year of university in his native New Zealand, Pickering graduated from the California Institute of Technology with a degree in electrical engineering in 1932. He earned his master’s degree in engineering and PhD in physics from that institution in 1933 and 1936, respectively. Pickering assumed a teaching position at Caltech after earning his PhD and remained at the university in a variety of capacities for the rest of his life. He was invited to join the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, originally part of the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory of Caltech, in 1944. In 1954 Pickering was appointed director of JPL. In 1958, after the Soviet launch of Sputnik, NASA assumed JPL, and Pickering’s staff was given the responsibility of significantly expanding unmanned space exploration. After thirty-two years of service to JPL, Pickering retired from the institution in 1976.

In 1976 Pickering accepted a two-year position as the director of the research institute of the University of Petroleum and Minerals in Saudi Arabia. He later established the Pickering Research Corporation, which focused on space-related research. In 1983 Pickering established a corporation called Lignetics, Inc., in order to manufacture sustainable-wood-pellet alternative fuels. In 1987 he was inducted into the Society of Satellite Professionals International Hall of Fame. He was granted honorary knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II of England, in addition to a National Medal of Science by President Ford, and the Japan Prize in 1994. Pickering received a number of honorary doctorates from prestigious international universities. In 2010 the New Zealand Geographic Board officially declared a peak of the Kepler Mountains as Mt. Pickering in honor of his scientific accomplishments.

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