Photo of William H. Pickering

William H. Pickering

  • National Medal of Science
  • Engineering

For his leadership of the exploration of the planets of the solar system and his personal contributions to the theory and practice of soft planetary landings and collection of data from deep space.

Rocket Man. No, it’s not the Elton John song, we are talking about — it’s William H. Pickering, the man who launched us into the Space Age.

As both a scientist and an engineer, Pickering’s career began with sending data via radio signals from balloons. He attracted the attention of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory [JPL] where his earliest rocket achievement was the Corporal, the first operational surface-to-surface guided ballistic missile for the US Army.

In 1957, then JPL Director Pickering heard, as did the world, the first ping from space. It was from the Soviets, who launched the Sputnik 1 satellite. With the Cold War in full force President Dwight Eisenhower sought parity if not superiority.

Within three months, JPL designed and launched the Explorer 1 satellite, the first US satellite to return scientific data from space. The US’s place in the space race was cemented.

Space exploration was so integral to US culture during this time that Pickering was honored as Grand Marshall of the 1963 Tournament of Roses Parade.

Bill Pickering in his words “had a contract [from NASA] to go out and explore the depths of the solar system,” as highlighted by the twin Voyager missions and in the process fuel our imagination.

By Barbara Valentino