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William Pickering Oral History Interview with Mary Terrall

 Digital Record
Identifier: 2016-02-17-000128


  • Other: 2016 February 17


Interview in four sessions in 1978 with William Hayward Pickering, professor emeritus of electrical engineering at Caltech and director (1954-1976) of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, begins with recollections of his upbringing in New Zealand. He enters Caltech as an undergraduate in spring term of 1929: influence of A. A. Noyes; travels in Europe during his junior year. Remains at Caltech as a graduate student in electrical engineering and then joins the faculty. Recollections of life at Caltech during the Depression and the war years, including emphasis on power transmission in its electrical engineering department, under Royal Sorensen, and subsequent expanding into electronics. Recalls his work with H. Victor Neher and R. A. Millikan on balloon-flight studies of cosmic rays; travels with them to India and Mexico. Contrasts leadership of Millikan and Lee A. DuBridge. Comments on barrage of Japanese incendiary balloons during the war. Early history of JPL: Theodore von Kármán, H. S. Tsien, Frank J. Malina. Long-range missile development for US Army; JPL's collaboration with Wernher von Braun at Redstone Arsenal, Huntsville, Ala. Advent of Sputnik (1957); competition with Soviet Union. JPL's move into space program with Explorer 1, first US satellite; establishment of NASA (1958); JPL becomes a NASA lab, administered by Caltech. Ranger program (lunar probes); Ranger 6 video failure; success of Ranger 7 (1964). Simultaneous progress of planetary and lunar exploration programs; Mariner 2 (1962 Venus fly-by); Surveyor series (moon); Surveyor as precursor to Apollo program. His reflections on JPL directorship; JPL's relations with Caltech; advantages of being administered by Caltech instead of by NASA as a civil service laboratory. The interview concludes with his comments on his post-retirement work setting up an applied research institute at Saudi Arabia's University of Petroleum and Minerals.

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