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Canterbury remembers famous space engineer alumnus

news release
17 March 2004

Canterbury remembers famous space engineer alumnus

The University of Canterbury is saddened by the death of distinguished alumnus and space engineering pioneer Sir William Pickering.

Sir William was 93.

Born in Wellington in 1910 Sir William grew up in Havelock, Marlborough, attending Havelock Primary, the same primary school as another famous Canterbury alumnus, Ernest Rutherford.

Often referred to as “New Zealand’s greatest gift to America”, Sir William was a central figure in the space race between the US and Russia in the 60s and 70s. As Director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, Sir William led the development of space probes, including the first United States satellite, Explorer I.

Sir William also oversaw 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 rated as one of his major achievements the Ranger VII spacecraft that returned detailed pictures of the moon’s surface which were so important in planning for Neil Armstrong’s moon walk.

Sir William, who began his studies at Canterbury in 1928, returned to the University last year to be awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Engineering. More than 1500 people of all ages turned out to see Dr Pickering honoured and to listen to his personal account of a lifetime in unmanned space research.

Through the decades Sir William received many accolades and twice graced the cover of Time Magazine. In 1976 he was given an honorary knighthood and last year received New Zealand’s highest honour, the New Zealand Order of Merit.

University of Canterbury Vice-Chancellor Professor Roy Sharp said Sir William was an outstanding New Zealander.

“Sir William’s respect for science and engineering and his commitment to furthering knowledge through scientific research was inspirational.

“He was inspirational not just for his exploration of space and technological achievements but also inspirational for what an ordinary New Zealander could achieve on the world stage.”


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