Roger Hanson: William Pickering's battle for photos of the moon

William Pickering at the Carter Observatory in Wellington in 2002.

William Pickering at the Carter Observatory in Wellington in 2002.

The scientist-engineer I most admire is William Hayward Pickering (1910-2004).

Born in Wellington, he moved at the age of six, after his mother's death, to live with his grandparents in Havelock, Marlborough.

Paul Stanley Ward reports, in his on-line biography of Pickering, that Pickering's father, a pharmacist, left New Zealand to work in the tropics but he believed this wouldn't be a healthy environment to bring up his son, so at the age of 13, William Pickering was sent to Wellington College.

Photos of the lunar surface aren't too hard to find these days, but in the early '60s it was quite a challenge for ...

Photos of the lunar surface aren't too hard to find these days, but in the early '60s it was quite a challenge for Pickering and his team.

It was here that his mathematics teacher introduced him to astronomy. Thanks to the efforts of an uncle who lived in California, in 1932 Pickering graduated with a degree in electrical engineering from the prestigious California Institute of Technology (Caltech).

The 1930s at Caltech was a time of experimenting with rockets, hardly more than kit sized versions launched on the campus grounds. Pickering soon became an indispensable member of the team because of his skills, particularly in the new field of telemetry (remote radio control).

During World War II he became involved with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and clearly his talents were recognised because by 1954 he achieved the remarkable feat of becoming its Director.

Nothing is ever routine in large engineering projects and the measure of a good engineer is to be able to manage the pressure when the setbacks accumulate.

But Pickering excelled in a skill that cannot be taught, he had a tough edge, the sort that instils urgency and focus in the team. He was fair and hugely respected, the sort of boss the staff wanted to succeed. Any manager will know, that is very difficult to achieve.

Alas I never met Pickering but his record speaks for itself – and what a record. It would be hard to think of an engineer who ever came under the sort of pressure that he endured during JPL's Ranger series of unmanned missions to the Moon (1961-1965).

The objective was to obtain the first ever close-up images of the surface of the Moon. The idea was to deliberately crash the spacecraft onto the surface of the Moon and during the approach, to photograph the surface, beaming the pictures back to Earth.

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Ranger 1 - failed, lost control and after 4 days and 111 unintended Earth orbits burned up over the Gulf of Mexico.

Ranger 2 - the tracking antennas failed and the spacecraft burned up in the Earth's atmosphere.

Ranger 3 - antenna failed and the spacecraft missed the Moon by 39,000kms.

Ranger 4 - computer failure caused it to impact the Moon, no data transmitted.

Ranger 5 - malfunctions at the tracking stations in Australia and South Africa meant the spacecraft missed the Moon by 720kms.

Ranger 6 flew to the Moon and impacted precisely on schedule, but, the cameras failed and to the consternation of all at JPL, the screens remained blank.

Tens of millions of dollars spent and not one close-up photograph of the Moon to show for it. The US Government wanted blood and William Pickering was in their sights. He was given one last chance, fail and his career at JPL was over.

From February 2, 1964, when Ranger 6 failed, until the launch of Ranger 7 on July 28, 1964, Pickering must have gone through hell as he tried to rebuild the confidence of a demoralised team after no less than six soul destroying failures.

The Ranger 7 mission duration must have been the longest 65.5 hours of his life, but on July 31, 1964, the photographs began to appear, beautiful close-up photographs in detail never before seen, of the lunar surface. Success at last.

There were many other triumphs in Pickering's career including appearing twice on the cover of Time magazine, the first time on March 8, 1963, and then on July 23, 1965, for his leadership role in the Mariner spacecraft missions to Venus and Mars.

Perhaps the best testament to his marvellous management skills was that when he retired as Director of JPL after 22 years, he was the only Director in JPL's history to be given a standing ovation.

 - Stuff

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