The launch of Sputnik in
1957 forced the United States into the space race. Fighting the Cold War, the Americans needed to show the world that they too could launch a rocket into space — and they had to do it quickly. Less than three months later Explorer 1 was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The man behind it: William Pickering from Wellington, New Zealand.
Permission of The Archives, California Institute of Technology
In the next ten years Pickering
went on to become a pivotal figure in the American space race. Once he and his
team had conquered the earths orbit, the sky was, literally, the limit. He
worked at marrying the possibilities of technology with humanitys
wonderment at outer space. By sending spacecraft to the far edges of
the solar system, they made us more aware of the galaxy we live in.
William Hayward Pickering was born in Roxburgh Street, Mount Victoria, Wellington in 1910. His mother died when he was six and he was sent to live with his grandparents in Havelock, in the Marlborough Sounds at the northern tip of the South Island. He attended Havelock Primary School, the second school of New Zealand's greatest scientist, Ernest Rutherford.
Road to Caltech
Pickerings ability to marry practical and theoretical science was coached at Wellington College. With schoolmate Fred White (later Dr F. White CBE, CEO of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) Pickering built an early radio station. The two communicated by Morse code with others around the world.
After high school Pickering studied engineering at Canterbury University. He completed one year of study before an uncle (who divided his time between living in New Zealand and California), encouraged him to apply to the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). Although a new university, Caltech already had an excellent reputation for science and engineering.
Pickering completed a bachelor degree in electrical engineering in 1932, and returned to New Zealand hoping to work as an engineer. Unable to find satisfactory employment, however, he returned to California and to education. He completed his Masters in 1933 and a PhD in Physics in 1936.
That same year he joined the Caltech
electrical engineering. He was made professor in charge of radio and electronics and also
appointed to the Scientific Advisory Board of the United States Air Force.
As the cold war unfolded the link between academic bodies, research
organisations, and the military grew. Caltech, along with MIT,
University of Chicago and other notable American institutions, became
part of the mix.
William Pickering 1965
JPL and Explorer 1
During World War II Pickering had become involved in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Jet technology was comparatively new to Caltech, but war was to quickly advance the technology from theory to reality. The American military knew it and enlisted the aid of academic institutions. Pickering initially became involved with the Lab through his studies into telemetry - the science of radio control.
In 1950 he finished lecturing
and began working with JPL full time. By 1954 he was the Labs Director.
His rise to the top was to do with both how well he knew science and how
well he knew scientists. His role of director was a multifaceted one: not
only was his scientific and technical expertise to the fore, but his
antipodean diplomacy was required to lead not only volatile and brilliant
scientists, but also work with politicians and military hierarchy during
the pressure-cooker political environment of the Cold War.
Sputnik and The Race For Space
On October 4,1957 the Soviet Union launched Sputnik. After 10 years of Cold War the Soviets had beaten the Americans into space. Circling the globe every 90 minutes, Sputnik contained a beeping transmitter that could be received by any short wave radio on earth. The American public knew it was there.
In a 1993 lecture at the University of Michigan, Pickering said the launch of Sputnik was no secret. In 1955 both the Soviet and American governments had announced their intentions to experiment with satellite. If the public wasn't listening when these announcements were made, two years later they certainly heard the sound of a sinister Sputnik coming over the airwaves above middle America. Or as Pickering said:
The Americans were working to match Sputnik, and two months after the Russians' success the Naval Research Laboratory launched the Vanguard. A test launch, on December 7th, 1957, was to be viewed under the glare of the international media, the craft exploded on the launchpad.
Fortunately, Pickering and the JPL had been working since Sputnik on their own satellite. If their launch went successfully it would repair some of the US Governments bruised ego.
The Cold War Heats Up
Washington DC was cold and wet the night of February 1st, 1958, hours after the successful launch of Explorer 1. Pickering, Van Allen and von Braun drove through the windswept, deserted streets between the Pentagon and the National Academy of Sciences. They knew the importance of what they had achieved, but were uncertain about how much interest, outside of scientific circles, it would generate.
They neednt have been
concerned. Despite the inclement weather and the fact it was after
midnight, a press gang had turned out in force to question the trio. A photo
from the press conference of the men holding a model of Explorer 1
represents both the entry of America into the space race and William
Pickerings proudest moment.
Van Allen and Von Braun hold a model of Explorer 1, February 1, 1958 -
America had entered the space race
|Explorer 1 made the discovery
that a radiation belt circled the Earth. This would become known as the
Van Allen Belt. A later satellite, Explorer III, launched in December
1958, discovered a second radiation belt at a much higher altitude. Yet
Explorers scientific discoveries were secondary in the minds of the
American public, who felt equal parts of fear and wonder: Explorers
launch was the starting shot of the space race and the Cold War had
immediately become more intense. The conquest of space, the last
frontier, had begun.
In 1958 Congress passed the Space Act that established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). This divided space development research into civilian (NASAs area) and military, which became the Air Forces territory. This allowed Pickering and JPL a far freer hand in their work. They were given a contract containing three broad categories for their space missions.
Pickering said in 1993:
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."
Wellington to Venus
Despite the aggressive approach taken by the US Government at the time, and which continued after John Kennedys election in 1960, American progress in space was slower than the Soviet's. They were sending more powerful rockets than America's into space and orbiting the moon. It wasnt until 1962 when the JPL-designed Mariner II powered to Venus that America could claim a significant first.
With Explorer I, Pickering helped America take its first tentative steps towards the darkness of space. With Mariner II he and his team were sprinting hard into the great unknown. The American public, bubbling over with optimism and confidence during the prosperous Camelot days, were enthralled.
Yet, as Time wrote, the fact that Pickering and his team sent Mariner to Venus, was as massive an accomplishment as the findings themselves:
The following year, on November 28, 1964, Mariner IV was launched towards Mars. On July 23, 1965 Pickering was, once again, on the cover of Time.
From the Time story:
William Pickering 1998, holding the two Time magazines
he appeared on the cover of.
Picture by copyright of Karen Brown, Wellington
Mariner had travelled 325 million miles in 228 days. It was launched using early-1960s technology, hardly comparable to today's personal computers. It showed the world photographs of the Martian surface: our first real look at the red planet that humanity had.
The 1960s began with Kennedy
declaring that by the end of the decade man would walk on the moon. With
only six months of the decade remaining, the promise became reality. Pickering now rates one of his
major achievements as the Ranger VII spacecraft returning the first
pictures of the lunar surface in 1966. Before this many scientists
believed the Moon was covered in a thick layer of dust. Rangers
observations disproved this, and led the way for Neil Armstrongs first
steps on the lunar surface.
William Pickering visits Wellington College 1983 his former school - when Pickering left school the only satellite of the Earth was the Moon.
Permission The Dominion, Wellington
From Presidents, Queen, Emperor
Pickering retired from JPL in 1976 at the age of 66. He returned briefly to Caltech, before taking up a two-year teaching post in Saudi Arabia. At the age of 68 he returned to the United States with the intention of working on a commercial venture into solar energy. Instead he became director of a company that manufactures processed woodchips. Clean, safe and highly efficient energy may not be as spectacular as deep space exploration, but is still involved in the harnessing and transfer of energy.
William Pickering died at the age of 93 in La Cañada Flintridge, California on 15 March 2004. While he had been a US citizen since 1941, Pickering kept close ties with New Zealand. He had a painting of Mt Cook in his office, retained the faint twinges of a Kiwi accent in his voice, and was given an honorary knighthood from the Queen. The knighthood sits beside American accolades including personal messages from five US Presidents. In 1975 Pickering was awarded the prestigious National Medal of Science by President Gerald R. Ford, and in 1994 he was awarded the Japan Prize by His Majesty, the Emperor of Japan.
In 1993 Pickering was awarded
the inaugural Francois-Xavier Bagnoud Aerospace Prize for his contribution
to space science. In presenting him with the Prize the then current
president of Caltech Thomas E. Everhart said:
JPL's Beacon library have
produced a fantastic on-line exhibition,
of Leadership: the
Directors of JPL". Click here for the page on Pickering, including
links to a gallery:
For a short biography on
Schefter, James. (1999) The Race, Doubleday New York
Heppenheimer, T.A. (1997) Countdown: A History of Space Flight, John Wiley & Sons, New York
Brown, Karen. (1999) "Throwing stones at Venus", The Evening Post, January 13
Barton, Warren. (1997) "Kiwi who was a rocket scientist", The Dominion, January 3
(1965) "Taking the Measure of Mars", Time, July 23
(1963) "Venus: What the Mariner Saw", Time, March 8
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