James Van Allen Biography (1914-)


From his earliest years, Van Allen was fascinated by electricity and the lawsof physics. At the age of twelve he and a friend built a high-voltage machine that produced its own " lightning." In high school, his physics teacher regularly chased Van Allen from the laboratory at the end of the day so he couldlock up and go home.

As a student at Iowa Wesleyan College and the University of Iowa, Van Allen proved a better scientist than did many professors. He helped develop and check the instrumentation used during Admiral Richard Byrd's (1888-1957) second Antarctic expedition. While testing this equipment, he made cosmic ray measurements, foreshadowing future interest in cosmic rays.

During World War II, Van Allen helped design and build a radio-proximity fuse, a tough assignment because the delicate instrumentation of a radio transmitter and receiver had to withstand the shock of being fired from large-caliberguns. He learned an important lesson for the future: how to get a tremendousamount of scientific instrumentation into a tiny space and to make it so rugged it would withstand unbelievable shock. Many believe the resulting devicewas the United States Navy's most important World War II achievement.

After the war, Van Allen was asked to join a team of scientists testing German V-2 rockets captured during the war. His job was first to determine what experiments should be done, carry out those experiments, and then explain the results. Van Allen served as chairman of the V-2 Rocket Panel from 1947 to 1958. While V-2 testing continued, Van Allen was charged with the task of finding replacement rockets for the program after the V-2s were expended. His research resulted in the Aerobee, a rocket capable of carrying 150 pounds (68 kg)of instrumentation to an altitude of 300,000 feet (91,500 m). To counteract fears concerning the rocket's safety, Van Allen designed a tiltable launch tower to compensate for the winds at the White Sands Proving Ground in New Mexico and installed a radio command to cut off the rocket's fuel if it should gooff course. Projects studied with the Aerobee included solar radiation, sky brightness, and atmospheric composition.

In 1952 Van Allen introduced the Rockoon. As early as 1949 he had consideredthe possibility of somehow combining rockets with balloons. If a rocket couldbe lifted above most of the atmosphere and then ignited, it would be able totravel much higher, thus delivering more information to Earth-bound scientists. The rockoons, lifted into the stratosphere by balloon, would then fire off on signal from the ground. These rockets were able to travel an additional50 to 70 miles (80 to 112 km) closer to space.

During the early 1950s, Van Allen became chairman of the satellite project for the International Geophysical Year, an ambitious program during which sixty-six countries carried out joint research between July 1957 and December 1958. Through Van Allen's efforts, the participants agreed to allow their scientific instruments to be placed aboard the United States' first satellite. Luckily, he also decided to make the package fit on the Army's Jupiter-C rocket even though the government had picked the Navy's Vanguard to be the designatedsatellite launcher. Under his exacting direction, the instruments were designed to survive the violence of the launch and function far from earth in a hostile environment, and, after laborious refinement, achieved their goal of a package six inches (15 cm) around that weighed no more than 20 pounds (9 kg).

On January 31, 1958, Explorer 1 was successfully launched with Van Allen's instruments on board. Among the most exiting data to be produced by thesatellite's flight was that concerning the cosmic ray activity in space. To better study this radiation, Van Allen refined his instruments for future satellites. Eventually, instruments aboard Pioneer 3 confirmed that a belt of electrically charged particles surrounded the Earth, trapped by the planet's magnetic field. The radiation belts were named after Van Allen because the discovery had been made by his instruments. Thanks to his use of artificial satellites and their miniaturized instrumentation, Van Allen was able to gain muchknowledge about the earth's environment.

For his many contributions, Van Allen has been honored with several prizes, including the prestigious National Medal of Science, awarded to him by President Reagan in 1987.

Recent Updates

August 9, 2006: Van Allen died on August 9, 2006, in Iowa City, Iowa,of heart failure. He was 91. Source: New York Times, www.nytimes.com, August 10, 2006.

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