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Longtime JPL Director Put U.S. in Space Race

March 17, 2004|Thomas H. Maugh II | Times Staff Writer

William H. Pickering, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory director who pulled together the nation's first successful satellite launch in only three months and who later led the exploration of the solar system that culminated with the landing this year of two successful rovers on Mars, died of pneumonia Monday at his home in La Canada Flintridge.

Known affectionately as "Mr. JPL" and "Rocket Man," the New Zealand native who helped open the door to the stars was 93.

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

"More than any other individual, Bill Pickering was responsible for America's success in exploring the planets," said former Caltech President Thomas E. Everhart. "Under his leadership and vision, the field of planetary science grew into a distinct and cohesive new discipline."

It was a dismal October Saturday in 1957 when the United States public learned that the Soviet Union had launched a grapefruit-sized satellite called Sputnik into orbit around the Earth, trumping U.S. efforts 10 years into the Cold War. Before that time, Pickering once said, the public had paid little attention to the nation's rudimentary space program.

"The existence of the Sputnik was a great shock to the people of the United States," Pickering later recalled. "They suddenly realized that the Russians, who they thought of as peasants, had launched technology that was circling above them several times a day. That horrified people."

U.S. authorities initially dismissed the Soviet feat because Sputnik 1 was so small. Within a month, however, the Soviets had launched a second Sputnik, this one large enough to carry a dog, and the American military came under great pressure to catch up with, if not surpass, the "Red Menace."

The U.S. effort was entrusted to the Navy, which had scheduled the launching of a Vanguard satellite in December. But that effort had fallen well behind schedule, so authorities hedged their bets by turning to the Army, which had been building missiles at JPL and at the Ballistic Missile Agency in Huntsville, Ala., under Wernher von Braun, the German scientist who developed rocketry for the Nazis during World War II.

Von Braun's team built an upgraded Redstone rocket, while Pickering's JPL team built a three-stage solid propellant assembly for the upper stages of the craft.

JPL also constructed the satellite, whose payload was a Geiger counter constructed by radiation physicist James Van Allen of the University of Iowa to measure cosmic rays.

Last, but not least, the JPL team set up a global network of tracking stations to receive signals from the satellite.

The pressure intensified when the Navy's Vanguard blew up on its launchpad on Dec. 7, 1957, in the full glare of the media.

On Jan. 31, 1958, just 83 days after the team had received the go-ahead, Explorer 1 was launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla. Pickering, who was waiting in Washington, D.C., could not declare the launch a success until the satellite had completed its 90-minute orbit. "At the designated time, I phoned JPL, and they had a phone link to the tracking station in the desert," he recalled. "The time went by, and went by, and no signal. It was eight minutes before we got a signal, and it was the longest eight minutes of my life."

Shortly after midnight, Pickering, Van Allen and Von Braun held an exuberant news conference in Washington at which they displayed a model of Explorer 1 over their heads in a picture that marked America's entry into the space race and Pickering's proudest moment.

"When I reflect about the red tape that exists these days, I find it absolutely incredible that we were able to do it," Pickering told The Times some years ago.

The rapid launching of Explorer was "one of the more astounding things that happened in space ever, and maybe in science and engineering in the 20th century," Everhart said

That satellite and Explorer III, which was launched in March 1958, discovered the Van Allen radiation belt, which encircles the Earth. Pioneer III, a modified Explorer launched in December of that year, discovered a second, higher radiation belt when it reached an altitude of 63,000 miles.

In 1958, Congress created NASA to oversee the civilian exploration of space and divided the quest into three broad areas: near-Earth satellites, deep space missions, and manned space travel.

Pickering chose deep space for JPL, sending the lab on a quest that eventually would lead to the moon and all the planets except Pluto.

"I was delighted to hold a contract that said, in essence, 'Go out and explore the depths of the solar system,' " he recalled.

"That was a critical decision that shaped the future of JPL and resulted in Southern California being the gateway to the solar system," said former JPL director Ed Stone.

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