Bill Pickering, 93, former JPL director and arts patron

March 19, 2004

Dr. William H. Pickering, a central figure in the U.S. space race and former director of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory from 1954 to 1976, has died.

Pickering-known affectionately as "Mr. JPL" and an original "Rocket Man," and one of few public figures to appear twice on the cover of "Time" magazine-passed away Monday of pneumonia at his home in La CaƱada Flintridge. He was 93.

"Dr. Pickering was one of the titans of our nation's space program," said Dr. Charles Elachi, the current director of JPL. "It was his leadership that took America into space and opened up the moon and planets to the world."


NASA's associate administrator for space science, Dr. Ed Weiler, said Pickering "brought a vision and passion to space exploration that was remarkable. His pioneering work is the very foundation we have built upon to explore our solar system and beyond."

Matt Golembek, Mars Exploration Program Landing Site scientist, said, "As director of JPL, Pickering shaped what JPL would become and his far-reaching vision brought us where we are now."

Explorer I-a great


In 1958, as director of JPL, Pickering led the successful effort to place the first U.S. satellite, Explorer I, into Earth's orbit. Following on the success of Explorer I, Pickering was instrumental in leading a new era of robotic space exploration, including the first missions to the moon and the planets.

Pickering was born in Wellington, New Zealand, in 1910 and immigrated to the United States in 1929 to study at Caltech. He obtained his bachelor's and master's degrees in electrical engineering, then a Ph.D. in physics from Caltech before becoming a professor of electrical engineering there in 1946. Pickering became a U.S. citizen in 1941.

Pickering began work at JPL in 1944, at a time when the laboratory was developing missile systems for the U.S. Army. He organized the electronics efforts at JPL to support guided missile research and development, becoming project manager for Corporal, the first operational missile JPL developed. It was not a simple project. In an interview in 1994, Pickering joked about the trials and tribulations of testing the early guidance systems.

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