- Press Release
- Dec 6, 2022
NASA Remembers William H. Pickering, Former Director of JPL
Dr. William H. Pickering, a central figure in the U.S.
space program and former director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion
Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, Calif., passed away Monday of
pneumonia at his home in La Canada Flintridge, Calif. He was
Pickering, known affectionately as “Mr. JPL,” served as
director from 1954 to 1976. He was an original “Rocket Man,”
and one of few public figures to appear twice on the cover of
“Dr. Pickering brought a vision and passion to space
exploration that was remarkable,” said Dr. Ed Weiler, NASA’s
Associate Administrator for Space Science. “His pioneering work
is the very foundation we have built upon to explore our solar
system and beyond,” he said.
Pickering led the successful effort to place the first U.S.
satellite, Explorer 1, into Earth orbit. Following the success
of Explorer 1, Pickering was instrumental in leading a new era
of robotic space exploration, including the first missions to
the moon and the planets.
“Dr. Pickering was one of the titans of our nation’s space
program,” said JPL Director Dr. Charles Elachi. “It was his
leadership that took America into space and opened up the moon
and planets to the world.”
Pickering started at JPL in 1944, 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.
“For the 100th Corporal that we tested, I pushed the [launch]
button, and the darn thing went east instead of north. I never
pushed the button again,” he recalled.Eventually, under
Pickering’s direction, JPL developed the successful Sergeant
In 1954, Pickering was named director of JPL, and he soon had
his hands full with the space race. In November 1957, following
the first Soviet Sputnik launch, JPL and the Army Ballistic
Missile Agency were given the assignment to place the first
U.S. satellite into orbit. Pickering directed the JPL effort,
which, in just 83 days, provided the satellite,
telecommunications, and the upper rocket stages that lofted
Explorer 1 into orbit on January 31, 1958. It was considered
one of Pickering’s greatest achievements and laid the
groundwork for future robotic exploration of the moon and
In 1958 JPL, managed by the California Institute of Technology
(Caltech), was transferred from the Army to the newly created
National Aeronautics and Space Administration. In succeeding
years, JPL conducted an intensive series of space probes
including Ranger and Surveyor missions to the moon, and the
Mariner missions to Earth’s neighboring planets.
On December 14, 1962, the Mariner 2 spacecraft successfully
completed a flyby of Venus, culminating a 109-day journey of
more than 290 million kilometers (180 million miles). It was
humankind’s first penetration to the vicinity of another
planet. On July 14, 1965, following a 228-day journey of more
than 525 million kilometers (325 million miles) by Mariner 4,
Pickering’s team obtained the first close-up pictures of Mars.
Four more Mariner missions reached Venus and Mars before
Pickering retired from JPL in 1976 at age 66.
Pickering received numerous awards throughout his career,
including NASA’s Distinguished Service Medal. In 1975, he was
awarded the National Medal of Science by President Gerald Ford,
and in 1976 he was given honorary knighthood from the Queen of
England. He also received awards from numerous science and
Pickering was born in Wellington, New Zealand in 1910. He came
to the United States in 1929 to study at Caltech. Pickering was
naturalized a U.S. citizen in 1941. He obtained his bachelor’s
and master’s degrees in electrical engineering, and he received
a Ph.D. in physics from Caltech before becoming a professor of
electrical engineering there in 1946.
His widow, Inez Chapman Pickering, and daughter, Elizabeth
Pickering Mezitt, survive him.