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The stellar career of Kiwi scientist Bill Pickering

William Pickering in 2003. Photo/John McCombe

New Zealand scientist Sir William Pickering, who played a key role in putting man on the Moon, looks back on a life lived staring into space.

William Pickering has no idea how he came by an interest in science and electricity. It may have been sparked in the 1920s by the amateur radio station that he and a few friends built at Wellington College, which allowed them to communicate around the world via Morse code, but in those days science wasn’t seen as exciting. “Particularly not down here in New Zealand. Science – what did that have to do with cows and sheep?”

Yet, in a bare 20 years, science led this quietly spoken, sharp-eyed New Zealander – a bit like John Gielgud at his gentlemanly best – to oversee not only the world’s first fumbling steps towards escape from the binding force of the Earth’s gravity, but also our confident leaps thereafter to the brave new worlds beyond. He’s the same man who launched America’s first satellite, who took some of the first pictures of Mars and Venus and who photographed and mapped and sent probes crashing into the Moon in order to prepare for the epochal lunar landing.

As we walk the corridors of the University of Canterbury’s physics department, the old-fashioned courtesy Sir William displays is about the only thing that hints at his age. At 92, he manages to take a gruelling round of interviews, public-speaking engagements and meetings in his gentle stride. He has returned “home” to unveil a monument to himself and Ernest Rutherford in Havelock (they attended the same primary school) and to receive an honorary doctorate in engineering from Canterbury.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

He reminisces about how his fascination with science led to his becoming the director of the US’ Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), working on the development of space technology.

“I had no scientific background, but when I was at Wellington College, I got interested in radio, which was very new then, and a few of us put up an amateur radio station. In those days, when you put up a radio station you started from scratch – you started winding coils around transformers. I remember the US Navy coming to Wellington when they made a cruise around the Pacific in 1925 or thereabouts. We got in touch with them using the radio station and got to visit the ship. That was fun.”

In New Zealand at that time, he says, “agricultural developments were of world standard – the importance of the trace element cobalt was established here, for instance. But there was the same feeling about science then as there is now. People are confused – they want answers from scientists, not questions. But science doesn’t work like that.”

How does it work? I ask.

“Incrementally, learning a little more with each failure.” He recalls the Ranger probes, which were to take pictures of the Moon. “You could say the Rangers were dogged with bad luck. The first six rockets failed – but each time, we eliminated another little problem and were one step closer to success.”

These little problems were each costing taxpayers several million dollars, so how did he manage to be given the money for a seventh?

He smiles and holds his hands up in supplication, “Please!”

Fortunately, the 1964 Ranger 7 was an outstanding success, and resolved the scientific debate that lunar craters had been formed by the impact of meteors. There was a special satisfaction in this, because the impact theory had been proposed by his favourite teacher “Uncle Charlie”, AC Gifford, 40 years before. By the time the last probe, Ranger 9, crashed into the Moon the following year, they were so confident that the images were sent out live – worldwide.

Pickering and his American first wife, Muriel, in 1933. Photo/Supplied

“A darned good system”

Pickering started an engineering degree at Canterbury University College, but finished it at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). “I came over with my uncle and headed over to Caltech and basically said, ‘Well, here I am, I want to go to school.’ I’m not sure exactly how the next bit went, but something like: ‘Where do you come from?’ ‘New Zealand.’ ‘Where’s that?’”

He chuckles – this has been a familiar dialogue over the years.

“They didn’t know what to do with me, but finally said they’d give me their exams, so they did, I passed them and they said, ‘Come on in.’ I think one of the interesting things in retrospect is that Caltech is a private university, so it can pick and choose the best. I sat those exams cold and satisfied them based on the fact I’d gone through the New Zealand education system, so it was a darned good system. Still is. There are always New Zealanders who qualify, so New Zealand kids are doing all right, they’re up there with the best.”

At that stage, Pickering thought his career would involve helping New Zealand develop its electric power. “I got my doctorate degree in 1936, and came down here and looked around for a job. There weren’t any. By this time, Caltech had offered me a job as a professor of electrical engineering, which I took.”

He makes it sound coincidental, but it is hard to believe that it was much of a struggle leaving post-Depression New Zealand to work with Robert Millikan on cosmic rays, and to research and develop projects in electronics and telemetry.

It was the latter that got him started in “the space business”, as he calls it.

“I got involved with the people who were trying to make better rockets – not make them fly or anything, just making rocket motors that wouldn’t blow up. The aeronautics and engineering departments were having trouble with their instrumentation. With these things, you are trying to measure phenomena taking place over very short periods of time – you find that the limiting factor very frequently turns out to be how clever you are with the instrumentation; in other words, your ability to measure very tiny differences.

Warming to his subject, he explains how the ability to measure temperature differences of a millionth of a degree, for example, has enabled cosmologists to build up a picture of what the early universe must have looked like. “Just to have the idea of measuring anything to that level of accuracy is something, but to then want to put it into space and have it send data back is almost unbelievable, but, by golly, it’s been done!”

Is it the science or the technology that interests him? “The science. Absolutely. We’re not trying to build better mouse traps, but to understand universals – to find out what is out there and how it works. When we developed Explorer 1 [the first American satellite], we weren’t just trying to put a beeping transmitter into orbit for the sake of saying we could do it; we had developed a scientific satellite as part of the research programme conducted during the International Geophysical Year. It returned enormously important data on Earth’s radiation belts for the next 10 years.”

Pickering at the Jet Propulsion Lab, which he directed from 1954 to 1976. Photo/Supplied

Onwards to the final frontier

The science may have been of paramount importance to Pickering and his colleagues, the legendary Wernher von Braun and James Van Allen, but for the American public it was simply their triumphant entry into the Space Age that counted. Overnight he became a hero. “I really had no idea of the level of interest there was in what we were doing.”

The impetus was the Cold War. “Politically, it was the driving force. Eisenhower would harrumph, ‘We’re not in competition with the Russians’ – but we were, all right!”

Pickering has met five presidents, including Eisenhower, and been impressed with them all. Really? With all his achievements, shouldn’t it be the other way round? “When you go to the White House, you can’t help being impressed. I got a thrill out of it every time.” Is it the power? He nods.

1958 saw a flurry of legislative activity establishing the National Aeronautical and Space Administration (Nasa), with the JPL contracted to meet its requirements. “I think a lot of JPL’s success arose from its unique position in those days – we had links with Nasa, the military and Caltech, but we were different from each of them so we could develop in a special way. It was an exciting time.”

Others think success had less to do with the legislation and more to do with Pickering’s directorship. There was no difficulty attracting the best to work at JPL, but Pickering’s special skill lay in getting diverse personalities of all nationalities to share the same vision and work together to achieve it. “My job was to choose the team, get them to work together and understand all the failure modes possible. Then everything had to be analysed – in all directions. We encouraged freedom of discussion and working co-operatively. It didn’t bother us whether they worked at night or in their pyjamas as long as they could focus on the problems.”

In fact, people’s idiosyncrasies amuse him. He remembers a software specialist (“and software people are about the weirdest of a weird bunch!”) who was offered a job with George Lucas of Star Wars fame. Within six months he was back: “They said I had to wear shoes!”

When Nasa asked Pickering which of three space technology development areas – Near Earth Satellites, Manned Spaceflight or Deep Space Exploration of the Solar System – he wanted to concentrate on, there was no hesitation. “The Deep Space missions were always going to afford us the best opportunity to do the most science. I argued for that contract, because I knew we were going to make great discoveries – and we did!”

Within a few decades, the space programme had progressed from putting a tiny transmitter into orbit to sending craft fitted with all manner of complex scientific instruments into orbit and to land on other worlds, exponentially expanding our knowledge of the solar system and the universe. The Rangers and Surveyors, which photographed, mapped and landed on the Moon in preparation for the Apollo manned missions, were developed alongside the Mariner spacecraft that produced the first close-up images of Venus and Mars. There were also the Pioneer probes, the Viking missions to Mars and, launched just after Pickering’s retirement, the Voyagers, which ventured out into the realm of the gas giants, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

Small wonder that honours have been heaped upon him. Apart from his knighthood – “That was fun, though I didn’t have to go down on one knee and get tapped by a sword, as I wasn’t a Commonwealth citizen by then” – he has been awarded, among a plethora of other honours, the National Medal of Science, the prestigious Japan Prize, the Edison Prize and the François-Xavier Bagnoud Aerospace Prize, which he used to set up a fellowship for Kiwi students at Caltech.

Power of the future

Since his retirement at 66, Pickering has continued to ask questions and has followed an interest in solar energy – which had powered spacecraft in the inner solar system – as part of a general interest in energy supply and conservation. “What are we going to do when the world runs out of oil? I don’t see any solutions at present.”

He is also bothered by the propensity of today’s scientists to patent rather than publish. “It is antithetical to the aim of science to keep knowledge secret and ridiculous that anything to do with life itself could be patented.”

His own contribution to the energy crisis has been to develop a clean alternative to carbon-based fuel, perfecting a process of drying sawdust and binding it into wood pellets, which have a high energy yield. His highly successful company Lignetics now has three manufacturing plants. But, he says, “I don’t do anything much now – just call myself the chairman of the board!”

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