Launch Points: From Rockets to Planets

In 1958, shortly after Explorer 1’s success, William Pickering, the lab’s director at the time, and members of his senior staff decided that JPL’s future lay in interplanetary exploration. While it was clear that there would be competition from private companies in rocketry and Earth satellites, the planets were a wide-open field. “It made sense for them to go into business where there was no business,” says Conway.

The new focus was also ideal in light of the fact that Pickering and Caltech’s president at the time, Lee DuBridge, sought to shift the lab’s work away from classified military research and toward science. President Dwight Eisenhower made JPL part of NASA, and the Army officially transferred JPL to the new space agency in December 1958.

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Photo: Courtesy NASA/JPL/Caltech