Sir William Pickering, a great New Zealander

  • Pete Hodgson
Research, Science and Technology

"Sir William Pickering was one of the outstanding scientific talents New Zealand has produced, Research Science and Technology Minister Pete Hodgson said today. "He stood alongside our Nobel Prize winners as an example of brilliance and achievement in the pursuit of knowledge."

Dr Pickering, the New Zealand-born giant of rocket science and space exploration, has died at his California home, aged 93.

"I extend my sympathy to Sir William's family, friends and scientific colleagues for their loss," Mr Hodgson said. "His life was inspirational and his place in scientific history is assured."

William Pickering was born in Wellington in 1910. He was educated at Havelock Primary, in the Marlborough Sounds, Wellington College and Canterbury College, now the University of Canterbury, before moving to the United States in 1929 to study at the California Institute of Technology (Cal Tech), where he gained his PhD in physics in 1936.

Dr Pickering became Director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena and led the development of US unmanned space exploration, including the first US satellite, Explorer 1, the first successful American around-the-moon probe, Pioneer IV, the Mariner flights to Venus and Mars in the 1960s, the Ranger photographic missions to the moon and the Surveyor lunar landings of 1966-67. He became known as "Mr JPL".

"In 1941 Dr Pickering became an American citizen, but he never forgot New Zealand," Mr Hodgson said. "In a deliberate move to give something back to his country of birth, he established the WH Pickering Fellowship for New Zealand graduates to study engineering or science at Cal Tech."

Dr Pickering returned to Canterbury University last year to be awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Engineering. More than 1500 people came to hear him speak, and gave him a standing ovation.

Last year the Royal Society of New Zealand established the Pickering Medal to recognise excellence and innovation in the practical applications of technology. The Medal is to be awarded annually to a person who through design, development or invention has performed innovative work in New Zealand with results of national and international significance or significant commercial success. The first nominations are currently being sought.

Links to further information on Dr Pickering's life and work:

Nexus Research Group
University of Canterbury
Royal Society of NZ