Bill Pickering (rocket scientist)

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William Hayward Pickering

Pickering NASA photo.gif
William H. Pickering, JPL/NASA Photo
Personal details
Born(1910-12-24)24 December 1910
Wellington, New Zealand
Died15 March 2004(2004-03-15) (aged 93)
Flintridge, California, USA
CitizenshipUnited States, New Zealand
Nationality United States, New Zealand
Known forSpace aeronautics pioneering
Awards Magellanic Premium (1966)
IEEE Edison Medal (1972)
National Medal of Science (1975)
Delmer S. Fahrney Medal (1976)
Japan Prize (1994)
Daniel Guggenheim Medal (2000)

William Hayward "Bill" Pickering ONZ KBE (24 December 1910 15 March 2004) was a New Zealand-born rocket scientist who headed Pasadena, California's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) for 22 years, retiring in 1976. [1] [2] He was a senior NASA luminary and pioneered the exploration of space. Pickering was also a founding member of the United States National Academy of Engineering. [3]

New Zealand Constitutional monarchy in Oceania

New Zealand is a sovereign island country in the southwestern Pacific Ocean. The country geographically comprises two main landmasses—the North Island, and the South Island —and around 600 smaller islands. New Zealand is situated some 2,000 kilometres (1,200 mi) east of Australia across the Tasman Sea and roughly 1,000 kilometres (600 mi) south of the Pacific island areas of New Caledonia, Fiji, and Tonga. Because of its remoteness, it was one of the last lands to be settled by humans. During its long period of isolation, New Zealand developed a distinct biodiversity of animal, fungal, and plant life. The country's varied topography and its sharp mountain peaks, such as the Southern Alps, owe much to the tectonic uplift of land and volcanic eruptions. New Zealand's capital city is Wellington, while its most populous city is Auckland.

Pasadena, California City in California, United States

Pasadena is a city in Los Angeles County, California, United States, located 10 miles northeast of Downtown Los Angeles.

Jet Propulsion Laboratory Research and development center and NASA field center in California, US

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is a federally funded research and development center and NASA field center in La Cañada Flintridge, California, United States, though it is often referred to as residing in Pasadena, California, because it has a Pasadena ZIP Code.


Origins and education

He was born in Wellington, New Zealand on 24 December 1910. Pickering attended Havelock School, Marlborough, and Wellington College. After spending a year at the Canterbury University College, he moved to the United States (where he subsequently naturalized), to complete a bachelor's degree at the California Institute of Technology ("Caltech"), and later, a PhD in Physics, in 1936. His speciality was in Electrical Engineering, and he majored in what is now commonly known in scientific vernacular as 'telemetry'. [1]

Wellington Capital city in New Zealand

Wellington is the capital city and second most populous urban area of New Zealand, with 418,500 residents. It is located at the south-western tip of the North Island, between Cook Strait and the Remutaka Range. Wellington is the major population centre of the southern North Island, and is the administrative centre of the Wellington Region, which also includes the Kapiti Coast and Wairarapa. Its latitude is 41°17′S, making it the world's southernmost capital of a sovereign state. Wellington features a temperate maritime climate, and is the world's windiest city by average wind speed.

Havelock, New Zealand Place in Marlborough, New Zealand

Havelock is a coastal township in the Marlborough region of New Zealand. It sits at the head of Pelorus Sound, one of the Marlborough Sounds, and at the mouth of the Pelorus and Kaituna Rivers. The 2013 census recorded its population as 486, a decrease of 3 since 2006.

Marlborough Region Place in Marlborough, New Zealand

The Marlborough Region, commonly known simply as Marlborough, is one of the regions of New Zealand, located in the northeast of the South Island. Marlborough is a unitary authority, both a region and a district, and its council is located at Blenheim. It has a population of 46,600.

Jet Propulsion Laboratory

William Pickering became involved with JPL in 1944, during the second world war.

As the Director of JPL, from 1954, Pickering was closely involved with management of the Private and Corporal missiles under the aegis of the U.S. Army. [1]

MGM-5 Corporal first guided weapon authorized by the United States to carry a nuclear warhead

The MGM-5 Corporal missile was a nuclear-armed tactical surface-to-surface missile. It was the first guided weapon authorized by the United States to carry a nuclear warhead. A guided tactical ballistic missile, the Corporal could deliver either a nuclear fission or high-explosive warhead up to a range of 75 nautical miles (139 km).

His group launched Explorer I on a Jupiter-C rocket from Cape Canaveral on 31 January 1958 less than four months after the Soviet Union had launched Sputnik.

Jupiter-C U.S. research and development vehicle developed from the Jupiter-A, member of the Redstone rocket family; used for three sub-orbital spaceflights in 1956 and 1957 to test re-entry nosecones

The Jupiter-C was an American research and development vehicle developed from the Jupiter-A. Jupiter-C was used for three sub-orbital spaceflights in 1956 and 1957 to test re-entry nosecones that were later to be deployed on the more advanced PGM-19 Jupiter mobile missile.

Cape Canaveral cape at the Atlantic coast of Florida, United States

Cape Canaveral, from the Spanish Cabo Cañaveral, is a cape in Brevard County, Florida, United States, near the center of the state's Atlantic coast. Known as Cape Kennedy from 1963 to 1973, it lies east of Merritt Island, separated from it by the Banana River. It was discovered by the Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de León in 1513.

In 1958 the lab's projects were transferred to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and Pickering's team concentrated on NASA's unmanned space-flight program. JPL, under Pickering's direction flew further Explorer 3 and Pioneer missions as well as the Ranger and Surveyor missions to the moon and the several Mariner flybys of Venus and Mars.

Explorer 3

Explorer 3 was an artificial satellite of the Earth, nearly identical to the first United States artificial satellite Explorer 1 in its design and mission. It was the second successful launch in the Explorer program.

<i>Pioneer 4</i>

Pioneer 4 was an American spin-stabilized unmanned spacecraft launched as part of the Pioneer program on a lunar flyby trajectory and into a heliocentric orbit making it the first probe of the United States to escape from the Earth's gravity. It carried a payload similar to Pioneer 3: a lunar radiation environment experiment using a Geiger–Müller tube detector and a lunar photography experiment. It passed within 58,983 km of the Moon's surface. However, Pioneer 4 did not come close enough to trigger its photoelectric sensor. The spacecraft was still in solar orbit as of 1969. It was the only successful lunar probe launched by the U.S. in 12 attempts between 1958–63; only in 1964 would Ranger 7 surpass its success by accomplishing all of its mission objectives.

Ranger program series of unmanned space missions by the United States in the 1960s

The Ranger program was a series of unmanned space missions by the United States in the 1960s whose objective was to obtain the first close-up images of the surface of the Moon. The Ranger spacecraft were designed to take images of the lunar surface, transmitting those images to Earth until the spacecraft were destroyed upon impact. A series of mishaps, however, led to the failure of the first six flights. At one point, the program was called "shoot and hope". Congress launched an investigation into "problems of management" at NASA Headquarters and Jet Propulsion Laboratory. After two reorganizations of the agencies, Ranger 7 successfully returned images in July 1964, followed by two more successful missions.

Explorer III discovered the radiation field round the earth that is now known as the Van Allen radiation belt. Explorer 1 orbited for 10 years and was the forerunner of a number of successful JPL earth and deep-space satellites. William Hayward Pickering is not to be confused with William Henry Pickering, an astronomer from an earlier era.

Van Allen radiation belt zone of energetic charged particles around the planet earth

A Van Allen radiation belt is a zone of energetic charged particles, most of which originate from the solar wind, that are captured by and held around a planet by that planet's magnetic field. Earth has two such belts and sometimes others may be temporarily created. The discovery of the belts is credited to James Van Allen, and as a result, Earth's belts are known as the Van Allen belts. Earth's two main belts extend from an altitude of about 640 to 58,000 km above the surface in which region radiation levels vary. Most of the particles that form the belts are thought to come from solar wind and other particles by cosmic rays. By trapping the solar wind, the magnetic field deflects those energetic particles and protects the atmosphere from destruction.

Satellite Human-made object put into an orbit around the earth or other planet

In the context of spaceflight, a satellite is an artificial object which has been intentionally placed into orbit. Such objects are sometimes called artificial satellites to distinguish them from natural satellites such as Earth's Moon.

William Henry Pickering American astronomer

William Henry Pickering was an American astronomer. Pickering constructed and established several observatories or astronomical observation stations, notably including Percival Lowell's Flagstaff Observatory. He led solar eclipse expeditions and studied craters on the Moon, and hypothesized that changes in the appearance of the crater Eratosthenes were due to "lunar insects". He spent much of the later part of his life at his private observatory in Jamaica.

At the time of his retirement as director, in 1976, the Voyager missions were about to launch on tours of the outer planets and Viking 1 was on its way to land on Mars.


Bill Pickering, keen to support authentic science in his home country, was Patron of New Zealand's only school-based research group, [4] the Nexus Research Group, from 1999 until his death in 2004. Between 1977 and his death in 2004, Pickering also served as Patron of the New Zealand Spaceflight Association; a non-profit organisation which exists to promote an informed approach to astronautics and related sciences.


He died on 15 March 2004 of pneumonia in La Cañada Flintridge, California, USA. [1]

Gifford Observatory

Pickering re-opened the Gifford Observatory as the guest of honour, on 25 March 2002. [5] He had been a frequent user of the observatory during his school days in Wellington College.


Honorific eponyms

In 2009 to mark the International Year of Astronomy, William Hayward Pickering was selected along with cosmologist Beatrice Tinsley to have their names bestowed on peaks in the Kepler Mountains of New Zealand's Fiordland National Park. In December 2010 the New Zealand Geographic Board officially gazetted Mount Pickering as an official New Zealand place name. [7]

Three roads in New Zealand have been named after Pickering, namely: Sir William Pickering Drive in the Canterbury Technology Park in Christchurch; Pickering Crescent in Hamilton; and William Pickering Drive in Auckland.

In December 2018 New Zealand company Rocket Lab announced that the fourth launch of their Electron rocket and their first mission for NASA's Educational Launch of Nanosatellites program will be named "This one's for Pickering", in honor of Bill Pickering [8] .

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  1. 1 2 3 4 Wilford, John Noble (17 March 2004). "William H. Pickering, 93, Leader in Space Exploration, Dies". The New York Times . Retrieved 19 February 2015. William H. Pickering, a leader of the first successful space flight by the United States and its first two decades of planetary exploration, died on Monday at his home in La Cañada Flintridge, Calif. He was 93. ...
  2. Casani, John R. (November 2004). "Obituary: William Hayward Pickering". Physics Today. 57 (11): 86–87. Bibcode:2004PhT....57k..86C. doi:10.1063/1.1839390.
  3. "Founding members of the National Academy of Engineering". National Academy of Engineering . Retrieved 21 October 2012.
  4. "William Pickering and the NASA connection". Nexus Research Group. Retrieved 2015-06-18.
  5. "William H. Pickering" . Retrieved 19 June 2015.
  6. Sprekelmeyer, Linda, editor. These We Honor: The International Aerospace Hall of Fame. Donning Co. Publishers, 2006. ISBN   978-1-57864-397-4.
  7. "Mount Pickering and Mount Tinsley in the Kepler Range". RASNZ. Archived from the original on 29 April 2011. Retrieved 16 June 2013.