JPL engineer earns lifetime achievement award

Pete Theisinger felt awestruck this week when he received the same award also given to luminaries such as John Glenn and Neil Armstrong.

In a black-tie ceremony Wednesday at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., the La Crescenta resident received the 2017 National Air and Space Museum Trophy for Lifetime Achievement in recognition of his decades at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Theisinger, 71, first joined the La Cañada Flintridge facility in 1967. For 47 of the past 50 years, he's called JPL home, working as a systems engineer and project manager for a variety of endeavors, including the Mars Exploration Rover project, Voyager and Galileo.

"I'm still a little speechless," he said in an interview Friday. "When I got the letter, it was FedEx. No one had told me I had been nominated."

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Theisinger said he felt humbled by the recognition, calling it "a summation of what I've worked on and all the people I've worked with."

The award itself is a miniature version of "The Web of Space," John Safer's sculpture depicting two silver arches with beams that hold up an elevated sphere between the arches.

Theisinger received his award alongside the winners of the Current Achievement Award — the South Pole Rescue Team from Kenn Borek Air Ltd. that was credited for rescuing National Science Foundation researchers during a dangerous Antarctic winter in 2016.

"The winners of the 2017 Trophy have achieved daring feats of exploration and determination," said retired Marine Corps Gen. J.R. "Jack" Dailey, the John and Adrienne Mars director of National Air and Space Museum, in a statement.

"The Kenn Borek Air team's successful rescue mission recalls an earlier era of bold accomplishments, before aviation connected nearly every point on the globe. And Mr. Theisinger's exceptional leadership pushed our country's technological and scientific capabilities to new heights. Their successes make them most deserving of this award and will inspire new generations of pioneers and explorers," he added.

Theisinger, who has lived in La Crescenta since 1983, was born in California and lived throughout the country before settling in Southern California in high school. He enjoyed math and science and seemed all but destined to follow his father, an electrical engineer whose own career included work on the Apollo missions at Cape Canaveral, Fla.

Theisinger, who in 2013 was named one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people in the world, said he was always around space launches and "space people." He witnessed the Apollo 8 launch over his Christmas break in 1968.

"I was always in the technical world," he said.

Theisinger earned a bachelor's degree in physics from Caltech and had the intention of going to graduate school when a summer job at JPL changed his life. As it would turn out, save for a three-year stint at a JPL contractor, he never left the place.

Theisinger officially retired March 23. His retirement party took place in January, but he did get a cake on his official last day. Theisinger said he kept some of his work-related items over the years and gave some of them to the company's archivist.

Theisinger said top moments during his career included the Mars rover landing in 2004, the Curiosity's landing on Mars in 2012 and when Voyager sent pictures back to Earth of the volcanic Io, one of Jupiter's Galilean moons.

Theisinger said credit for the award also goes to his wife Dona, who endured his long hours in a demanding business, and to his family of four children and one granddaughter. He said he plans to pursue other projects and spend time at his second home in Oxnard, though he didn't rule out the possibility of returning to JPL on a part-time basis.

"I've been very fortunate in the opportunities that have been presented to me and the people I've had a chance to work for and work with," he said. "I really know that, and I appreciate that."

bradley.zint@latimes.com

Twitter: @BradleyZint

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