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Sir William Pickering

Another space pioneer from Aotearoa New Zealand is William Hayward Pickering, the original Rocket Man. His name graced the side of Rocket Lab’s fourth Electron rocket, and their first mission for NASA’s Educational Launch of Nanosatellites programme named: ‘This one’s for Pickering’.

Cola Images via Alamy Stock Photos

“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’.”

A local lad with a brain for maths and an eye on the stars, William was born in Wellington on Christmas Eve 1910 to Albert and Elizabeth Pickering. Sadly, at the age of four he was sent to live with his paternal grandparents after his mother died. There he attended Havelock Primary School – the same one Sir Ernest Rutherford had attended 30 years earlier.

It was during his high school years at Wellington College that he became interested in radio. He joined the school radio group, building equipment that enabled them to communicate via Morse code with distant places, like the USA.

He studied engineering at Canterbury University, before moving to the United States in 1929, at the suggestion of his uncle, to study at California Institute of Technology (Caltech).

“This was a privately run, very select institution with the highest standards, and they admitted me as a student based on my work in Christchurch,” he said.

He completed three degrees in physics and electrical engineering at Caltech. In December 1932, William married Muriel Bowler, and they had two children, William and Elizabeth.

He earned a PhD in physics at Caltech in 1936, and accepted a teaching position there. In 1944, he joined the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL), at a time when the laboratory was developing missile systems for the US Army. In 1954, William was promoted to Director of JPL.

Following the first Soviet Sputnik launch in November 1957, he led the effort to place the first US satellite, Explorer 1, into orbit around the Earth on 31 January 1958. Coordinating the satellite, telecommunications and upper rocket stages was a huge combined effort that the team managed to pull off in just 83 days. It was considered one of his greatest achievements, and laid the groundwork for future robotic exploration of the moon and planets.

In 1958, JPL was transferred from Caltech to the newly created National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). This enabled the lab to not only work on satellites, but to work on deep space missions, and assist in the development of manned space travel.

William Pickering was a gifted communicator and appeared in media and lecture theatres around the world, inspiring a generation of aerospace enthusiasts. He featured twice on the cover of Time magazine as the face of the Mariner space programme – a rare honour for a non-politician.

Until his retirement in 1976, William oversaw some of the most iconic programmes in space exploration: the 1958 Explorer satellite; Pioneer’s detailed photos of the moon in 1959 (paving the way for the Apollo missions); the Mariner flybys of Venus in 1962 and Mars in 1965; and Viking 1, which was launched in August 1975, finally touching down on Mars on 20 July 1976. He was also involved in the development of the Voyager programme which launched in 1977 using two robotic interstellar probes. Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 are still transmitting useful data back to Earth to this day.

“The first Explorer satellite set the Americans on the way to the moon 11 years later, although at the time I thought the landing was about 20 years away,” he said.

William Pickering received many awards from the US and around the world. In 1976, President Ford awarded him the National Medal of Science, the United States’ highest honour for engineering excellence.

In 1993, he was awarded the inaugural Francois-Xavier Bagnoud Aerospace Prize for his contribution to space science. In presenting him with the prize, then president of Caltech, Thomas Everhart, said:

“More than any other individual, Bill Pickering was responsible for America’s success in exploring the planets – an endeavour that demanded vision, courage, dedication, expertise, and the ability to inspire two generations of scientists and engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.”

In April 1994, he was presented with the Japan Prize by His Majesty, the Emperor of Japan. “That was quite impressive to all of us,” his daughter Beth says.  

William Pickering always regarded New Zealand as home and returned often. He established the William Pickering Fellowship with the monetary awards he had received, to fund New Zealand graduate students into Caltech, and generously gave his time to visiting students.

New Zealand honoured him in return, even though he took American citizenship in 1941. William Pickering was made an honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1975, received an honorary doctorate from Canterbury University and, in 2003, joined the Order of New Zealand, New Zealand’s highest civic honour, as an honorary member. That same year, the Royal Society Te Apārangi announced the Pickering Medal, the country’s highest award for engineering excellence.

William Pickering died in California on 15 March 2004 at the age of 93. His second wife Inez died in 2009. He is survived by his daughter Elizabeth Pickering Mazett and her husband Wayne, daughter-in-law Donna, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Sadly, his son Bill died of heart failure the day before his father passed away.

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Explore the Legacy Project

Celebrate the New Zealanders past and present who’ve made a difference in the world.

Explore the Legacy Project

Celebrate the New Zealanders past and present who’ve made a difference in the world.

Explore the Legacy Project

Celebrate the New Zealanders past and present who’ve made a difference in the world.