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Space physicist James Van Allen dies

Published: 08/09/2006   09:53 AM Updated: 08/09/2006   10:37 PM

Tom Walsh  -  Special to The Gazette

IOWA CITY, IA - University of Iowa space physicist James A. Van Allen died Wednesday morning at University Hospitals. He was 91. 

     Van Allen was internationally renowned for 60 years of pioneering involvement in space physics research. He designed the scientific instrument carried into space by America's first satellite, Explorer 1.

   Launched on Jan. 31, 1958, Explorer 1 was the U.S. response to Sputnik. The world's first satellite, Sputnik was launched by the Soviet Union on Oct. 4, 1957.

   Instruments aboard Explorer 1 confirmed Van Allen's earlier upper atmosphere research and resulted in discovery of a phenomenon later named the Van Allen Radiation Belts -- huge regions of space in which electrons and protons are trapped within the earth's geomagnetic field. That discovery put him on the cover of the May 4, 1959, issue of TIME

   Van Allen made a second appearance on TIME's cover in January 1961, when, at age 46, he was among 15 U.S. scientists collectively named by the magazine as "Men of the Year.'' Space, he told TIME then, "is the hole we are in -- a vast area of human ignorance. The history of the world shows that attacking ignorance is fruitful.''

      Explorer 1 was the first of 30 space missions involving scientific payloads designed by Van Allen and his UI colleagues to explore the physical properties of the solar system. Van Allen's contributions to the Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 deep space probes provided 30 years of data trasmitted back to Earth during those spacecrafts' long journeys to Saturn, Jupiter and beyond. Now more than 7 billion miles from earth,
Pioneer 10 is among the most remote man-made objects in the universe.

    "I want to find out how the solar system originated, how it works, what its future is,'' Van Allen told an interviewer in 1974. "I'm not claiming it will do anybody any good. It's a matter of intellectual endeavor.''

   Van Allen was a vocal opponent of manned space exploration, which he considered "of dubious efficacy'' and a drain on limited federal funding for space exploration. He believed strongly that space science is best conducted by unmanned, automated spacecraft that can be remotely commanded from earth.

   In 1987, Van Allen received the National Medal of Science from President Ronald Reagan at a White House ceremony. In 1989, he received the prestigious Crafoord Prize from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, an award presented by King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden. He was also presented the 2004 National Space Grant Distinguished Service
Award by the National Space Grant Foundation, a lifetime achievement award recognizing his efforts to support and promote aerospace technology, science and education.

    Van Allen spent most of his professional career as a professor of physics at the University of Iowa. He chaired the UI's Department of Physics and Astronomy between 1951 and his retirement in 1985 at age 70. In June of 1982 the building that now houses the UI physics department was dedicated as "Van Allen Hall.''

    Despite his prominence within the international space physics community and the demands of his research, Van Allen treasured his interactions with UI students at all levels. During his 34 years as a faculty member, he taught a wide range of courses, including general physics, general astronomy, electricity and magnetism, introduction to
modern physics, radio astronomy, intermediate mechanics and a specialized course in solar-terrestrial physics.

   "Perhaps my favorite,'' he said in 1990, "was General Astronomy, an introductory but rigorous course on the solar system, with laboratory, which I taught for 17 years.''

   Although he officially retired in 1985, Van Allen continued his research up until the time of his death. He maintained an open-door policy while working in his office on the top floor of Van Allen Hall and was always accessibile to a loyal following of faculty, students and staff.

   Born in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, on Sept. 7, 1914, Van Allen was the second of four sons of Alfred Morris and Alma Olney Van Allen. As a child he was fascinated by mechanical and electrical devices and was an avid reader of Popular Mechanics and Popular Science magazines. He once ``horrified'' his mother by constructing a coil that produced foot-long sparks and caused his hair to stand on end.

   He was valedictorian of Mount Pleasant High School's class of 1931. He went on to study physics, chemistry and math at Iowa Wesleyan College in Mount Pleasant, graduating suma cum laude in 1935. He enrolled in graduate school at the University of Iowa in 1935 and completed his master's degree in 1936. A fellowship allowed him to continue studying
nuclear physics at the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C., where he also became immersed in research in geomagnetism, cosmic rays, auroral physics and the physics of Earth's upper atmosphere.

   With the outbreak of World War II, Van Allen was appointed to a staff position with the National Defense Research Council in Washington, D.C. His work in a laboratory in Silver Spring, Maryland, resulted a new generation of radio-proximity fuses used for anti-aircraft and shore bombardment.

   He was commissioned as a U.S. Navy lieutenant in 1942 and worked on a succession of Pacific Fleet destroyers, instructing gunnery officers and conducting tests on his artillery fuzes. He was an assistant staff gunnery officer on the battleship USS Washington when the ship successfully defended itself against a Japanese kamakazi attack during the Battle of the Philippines Sea. He was promoted to lieutenant commander in 1946.

   "My service as a naval officer was, far and away, the most broadening experience of my lifetime,'' he wrote in a 1990 autobiographical essay.

   Between 1946 and 1950 Van Allen worked at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, where he pioneered the use of German V-2 and other early rocket systems in high-altitude research. An international effort to study the physics of the solar system began in 1950 at a dinner party at his Maryland home. At that party, Van Allen and his guests conceptualized the International Geophysical Year, a global research effort that involved 60,000 scientists from 66 nations in 1957 and 1958.

   Between 1949 and 1957, Van Allen led four scientific expeditions throughout the world that used ship-launched, sub-orbital rockets to study cosmic rays and the earth's magnetic field.

   Van Allen returned to Iowa from Johns Hopkins in 1951 as professor and head of the UI's Department of Physics, a position he held until his retirement in 1985. Between 1985 and 1990 he was the Roy. J. Carver Professor of Physics, Emeritus, at the UI and, after 1990 was a Regent Distinguished Professor.

   Van Allen is survived by his wife of 60 years , Abigail Fithian
Halsey, and five children: Cynthia Van Allen Schaffner, Margot Van Alen Cairns, Sarah Van Allen Trimble, Thomas and Peter.

   Since 1961, the Van Allens have lived in a home at 5 Woodland Mounds Road, Iowa City.