Great Engineers & Scientists Blog

Great Engineers & Scientists

In 1676, Sir Isaac Newton wrote "If I have seen further it is by standing on ye shoulders of Giants." In this blog, we take Newton's words to heart, and recognize the many great engineers and scientists upon whose shoulders we stand.

So who do you think of when you hear "Great Engineer"? Let us know! Submit a few paragraphs about that person and we'll add him or her to the pantheon. Please provide a citation for the material that you submit so that we can verify it. Please note - it has to be original material. We cannot publish copywritten material or bulk text taken from books or other sites (including Wikipedia).

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William H. Pickering: Rocket Scientist (Part 2)

Posted December 28, 2007 12:01 AM

Editor's Note: This is the second in a two-part biography of William H. Pickering, former director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Part 1 of this series ran earlier this month.

The successful launch of Explorer 1 on January 31, 1958 was the first of many milestones for the U.S. space program during that important year. On July 29, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act, landmark legislation that created NASA. When the civilian space agency began operations on October 1, 1958, William H. Pickering was issued several new challenges. As director of Caltech's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the New Zealand-born scientist was now responsible for the development of both near-earth satellites and deep-space missions. Both goals would guide the greatest accomplishments of his career.

Pioneer IV

On March 3, 1959, NASA launched the Pioneer IV satellite towards the Moon. Build by JPL, the cone-shaped satellite included two Geiger-Mueller counters and a photoelectric sensor. Designed to measure cosmic radiation, Pioneer IV was a logical extension of the Explorer program, which had discovered two radiation belts around the Earth. During the Pioneer program, Pickering worked closely with James Van Allen, the University of Iowa professor after whom the Earth's radiation belts (the Van Allen Belts) are named; and Wehrner von Braun, the German rocket scientist whose V2s Pickering had analyzed during World War II. As the first U.S. spacecraft to escape Earth's orbit, Pioneer IV passed within 37,000 miles of the Moon.


William Hayward Pickering also played an important part in NASA's Mariner program, which sent space probes to Mars and Venus during the 1960s and 1970s. Mariner featured a number of firsts, including the first planetary flyby, the first planetary orbiter, and the first gravity-assisted maneuver. Suddenly a celebrity, Pickering was twice featured on the cover of Time magazine – a feat that few non-politicians have achieved. "This was the triumphant climax of an eight-month experiment", Time wrote of the Mariner IV launch on November 28, 1964. "Pulsing back across the far reaches of spaces", pictures of the Martian surface honored "the agile combination of men and computers" who labored in Pickering's Pasadena-based laboratory.

Ranger and Surveyor

Although scientists such as William H. Pickering were eventually upstaged by the astronauts who landed on the moon, the JPL director helped pave the way for America's greatest victory in the space race. On July 28, 1964, NASA launched a JPL-built spacecraft named Ranger VII to achieve a lunar impact trajectory and transmit high-resolution photographs of the lunar surface during its final minutes of flight. Equipped with six television cameras, Ranger VII transmitted the first pictures of the lunar surface, helping to debunk the theory that the Moon was covered in a thick layer of dust. From 1966 to 1968, Pickering helped design the seven Surveyor spacecraft that landed on the Moon's surface, proving that the lunar terrain was indeed safe for manned landings.

Honors and Accolades

Before retiring from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) at the age of 66, William Hayward Pickering received the IEEE Edison Medal (1972), the National Medal of Science (1975), and an honorary knighthood from the Queen of England (1976). Following a short stint as a Caltech professor, Pickering accepted a two-year teaching position in Saudi Arabia before returning to the United States at the age of 68. Although he planned to work on solar energy projects, he instead served as director for a company which specialized in another source of alternative energy: recycled wood chips.

William H. Pickering died on March 15, 2004.



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