James Van Allen

James Van Allen: The First Eight Billion Miles

Abigail Foerstner
Copyright Date: 2007
Published by: University of Iowa Press
DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt20mvbft
Pages: 376
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    James Van Allen
    Book Description:

    Astrophysicist and space pioneer James Van Allen (1914-2006), for whom the Van Allen radiation belts were named, was among the principal scientific investigators for twenty-four space missions, includingExplorer Iin 1958, the first successful U.S. satellite;Mariner 2's 1962 flyby of Venus, the first successful mission to another planet; and the 1970sPioneer 10andPioneer 11missions that surveyed Jupiter and Saturn. Although he retired as a University of Iowa professor of physics and astronomy in 1985, he remained an active researcher, using his campus office to monitor data from Pioneer 10-on course to reach the edge of the solar system when its signal was lost in 2003-until a short time before his death at the age of ninety-one. Now Abigail Foerstner blends space science drama, military agendas, cold war politics, and the events of Van Allen's lengthy career to create the first biography of this highly influential physicist.Drawing on Van Allen's correspondence and publications, years of interviews with him as well as with more than a hundred other people, and declassified documents from such archives as the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Kennedy Space Center, and the Applied Physics Laboratory, Foerstner describes Van Allen's life from his Iowa childhood to his first experiments at White Sands to the years ofExplorer Iuntil his death in 2006.Often called the father of space science, James Van Allen led the way to mapping a new solar system based on the solar wind, massive solar storms, and cosmic rays.Pioneer 10alone sent him more than thirty years of readings that helped push our recognition of the boundary of the solar system billions of miles past Pluto. Abigail Foerstner's compelling biography charts the eventful life and time of this trailblazing physicist.

    eISBN: 978-1-58729-720-5
    Subjects: General Science, Physics, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt20mvbft.1
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt20mvbft.2
  3. Preface and Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xiv)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt20mvbft.3
  4. Introduction
    (pp. xv-xviii)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt20mvbft.4

    Pioneer 10andVoyager 1raced toward opposite ends of the solar system, each on a path to find its edge. The vastness of space separated James Van Allen’s cosmic ray detectors onPioneerand Don Gurnett’s radio receiver onVoyagerwhile the offices of the two physicists stood only a few doors apart at the University of Iowa.Pioneer 10fell silent after sending home a final faint signal on January 22, 2003, from nearly 8 billion miles away. The last streams of data from his detectors told Van Allen that the probes were getting close to the intermediate...

  5. Abbreviations and Acronyms
    (pp. xix-xxii)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt20mvbft.5
  6. 1 Frontier Roots
    (pp. 1-15)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt20mvbft.6

    Pillar Point, New York—February 24, 1848. Seventeen-year-old George Van Allen relaxed after a day of backbreaking labor in the cold on his family farm. But instead of picking up a book, he began a lifetime habit of writing a journal. The pages to come introduced his parents, his ten brothers and sisters, and their struggle to eke a living from the rocky fields at the shores of Pillar Point, New York. But most of the writing wasn’t about his work. Like the first passage written on February 24, the journals sustained an inner life of the mind and the...

  7. 2 Heartland Boyhood
    (pp. 16-34)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt20mvbft.7

    Mount Pleasant, Iowa—November 11, 1918. Four-year-old James Van Allen and his family pressed into the crowd that packed the town square in Mount Pleasant. The great war in Europe was over, his parents told the child and his brother George. The Germans had surrendered under terms of the Armistice signed that day. In the chilly twilight, orators hailed the righteous victory. Preachers prayed for the Mount Pleasant Boys of 1917 who lay dead in the trenches of the Argonne Forest in France. And the high school band played patriotic songs. It almost seemed like the Fourth of July when...

  8. 3 The Making of a Scientist
    (pp. 35-49)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt20mvbft.8

    Iowa City, Iowa—September 1935. On a hot, Sunday afternoon in September 1935, Alfred Van Allen parked the Dodge at the side of the house and James loaded two suitcases into the trunk for a more permanent stay at what was then called the State University of Iowa. One suitcase held clothes and the other held books and, of course, a slide rule. The Dodge pulled away from the town where James had spent most of his life and headed north 50 miles to Iowa City.

    That fall, Van Allen rented a room for $14 a month on the second...

  9. 4 Physicists to the War Effort
    (pp. 50-66)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt20mvbft.9

    Battle of Saipan, the Philippine Sea—June 19, 1944. Navy Lieutenant James Van Allen watched the first wave of sixty-nine Japanese fighters and bombers swarm in over the Philippine Sea. The Japanese had the advantage of lighter planes with greater range. The American Hellcats had maneuverability and ace pilots who shot down most of the incoming enemy planes. But several penetrated the cover and headed in a kamikaze dive toward the USSWashingtonwhere Van Allen stood on the bridge as the gunners fired with a new secret weapon Van Allen had helped invent. The secret was in the detonation...

  10. 5 Enter Abigail Fithian Halsey
    (pp. 67-74)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt20mvbft.10

    Silver Spring, Maryland—March 1945. Soon after Van Allen returned from the South Pacific, he pulled up to the intersection of Colesville Road and Georgia Avenue and waited for the traffic light to turn green. Suddenly, he felt a bump. Abigail Fithian Halsey, the driver in the car in front of him, accidentally backed into him when the light changed. The contact was negligible. Neither Van Allen nor Halsey bothered to check for damage. He passed her on the right, and gave her one of those looks—male annoyance at a female driver written all over his face.

    Their paths...

  11. 6 The Dawn of Space Exploration
    (pp. 75-92)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt20mvbft.11

    White Sands Proving Ground, New Mexico—April 16, 1946. Van Allen had a cosmic ray experiment ready to fly on the first V-2 rocket launch, scheduled for April 16, 1946, at White Sands Proving Ground (now White Sands Missile Range) in New Mexico. The APL group headed there by train and loaded instruments in the baggage compartment where sensitive electronics rattled across 3,000 miles of track to El Paso, Texas. An army truck picked up the group and took them on another bumpy ride through the desert to the primitive base at White Sands. Van Allen bunked with the other...

  12. 7 The Mighty Little Aerobee
    (pp. 93-105)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt20mvbft.12

    White Sands Proving Ground, New Mexico—May 1947. The U.S. Navy leased space at White Sands and began construction of a 150-foot launching tower that May for a streamlined new research rocket, the Aerobee. The rocket stood 19 feet high, compared to the 46.5-foot V-2. It carried 150 pounds of instruments instead of more than 1,000 pounds. It was Van Allen’s baby, “the realization of the dream that Professor Robert H. Goddard had when he began his pioneering work on rockets,” praised Homer Newell.

    But White Sands Commanding Officer Colonel Harold Turner halted construction of the Aerobee tower on June...

  13. 8 It’s a Rocket! It’s a Balloon! It’s a Rockoon!
    (pp. 106-121)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt20mvbft.13

    U.S. Coast Guard CutterEastwind, Thule, Greenland—July 29, 1952. Van Allen boarded the USCGCEastwindwith an unlikely crew of space explorers—two graduate students, a university technician, balloon experts from General Mills Corporation, and a lieutenant from the Office of Naval Research. Ship’s Captain O. A. Peterson had invited him to join the ice cutter’s trip toward the North Pole. No one had measured cosmic rays so near the poles before and Van Allen approached the task with rockoons, the catchy name he adopted for his balloon-rocket hybrid. This was the ultimate economy model in rocketry since Van...

  14. 9 Sputnik and the Space Race
    (pp. 122-141)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt20mvbft.14

    Iowa City, Iowa—November 16, 1956. Van Allen picked up the phone and recognized the courtly but urgent voice of Ernst Stuhlinger even before the physicist identified himself. Stuhlinger cut straight to the point. A launch of a Jupiter C rocket in September could have sent a satellite into orbit but, under direct orders of the defense department, it fired with a dummy payload instead of the real thing.

    “The Vanguard program won’t deliver on time,” he told Van Allen, referring to America’s official contender in the race to launch a satellite into orbit—and to get it there first....

  15. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt20mvbft.15
  16. 10 Countdown to Explorer I
    (pp. 142-160)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt20mvbft.16

    USSGlacier—Sunday, September 22, 1957. Van Allen made a final trip to shore at the Boston Navy Yard that Sunday to call home one more time before he headed for the Antarctic on Iowa’s IGY’s rockoon expedition. As soon as he got back on ship, Iowa graduate student Larry Cahill arrived and settled in. Cahill couldn’t believe he was assigned a cabin above the waterline on the same upper deck as Van Allen. “The first time the fog horns blew, I realized why I was so lucky. It was installed right above my door,” he said.

    The USSGlacier...

  17. 11 Celebrity Scientist and the Birth of NASA
    (pp. 161-174)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt20mvbft.17

    The White House—February 4, 1958. Abbie Van Allen’s life changed forever a few hours afterExplorer Iwent into orbit. She awoke that Saturday morning with a long list of chores, errands to run, four kids clamoring for her attention, and a phone that never stopped ringing. Between phone calls, the doorbell rang and a Western Union delivery man handed her a telegram—from the White House.

    “The President and Mrs. Eisenhower hope you can come to dinner at the White House on Tuesday, February 4, at eight o’clock. Stop. White tie. Stop. Please wire reply. Mary Jane McCaffrey,...

  18. 12 Discovery of the Radiation Belts
    (pp. 175-186)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt20mvbft.18

    Cape Canaveral—March 26, 1958. The Jupiter C stood iridescent in the dawn sky, shrouded by plumes of liquid oxygen a few hours before launch time. George Ludwig, Jack Froelich of JPL, and other JPL satellite engineers watched it with subdued anxiety when it finally soared skyward in a bolt of scarlet flame.Explorer II, launched three weeks earlier, had failed to fire into orbit. But eight minutes intoExplorer IIIslaunch, the ground stations began to catch a high-pitched hum. The JPL team burst into jubilant cheers but Ludwig focused most of his attention on the Iowa Geiger counter....

  19. 13 Space Shield for the Cold War
    (pp. 187-199)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt20mvbft.19

    Moscow, Cosmic Ray Conference—July 1959. To the astonishment of Sergei Vernov, Leonid Sedov, and other Russian physicists present at the academy meeting, guest scientist James Van Allen spelled out detailed findings of the top secret Project Argus, the prototype project that tested the creation of a space shield with artificial radiation belts.

    Van Allen didn’t have to travel all the way to a meeting of physicists in Moscow to see the faces of the skeptics as he began to discuss the radiation belts. Plenty of people on his side of the Cold War fence viewed the belts he had...

  20. 14 Space as a Cottage Industry
    (pp. 200-212)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt20mvbft.20

    Fairfax, Iowa—April 1962. Only the crickets broke the stillness of the night as University of Iowa electrical engineering senior Don Gurnett headed across his father’s farm in Fairfax. He carried a handmade radio receiver with a loop antenna constructed of fifty turns of wire. Gurnett came to the fields to try to detect whistlers, the sounds of natural, very low frequency (VLF) radio waves produced by bursts of lightning.

    Safely beyond the electrical power line interference of Iowa City, he sat in the velvet darkness pierced only by the stars. But Gurnett didn’t need a local lightning storm to...

  21. 15 The Mariners
    (pp. 213-228)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt20mvbft.21

    Venus—December 14, 1962. The tinyMariner 2spacecraft neared the end of a 109-day voyage to the brightest jewel then visible in the dawn sky. Centuries of human beings had greeted Venus as the morning star. Now JPL scientists sent a greeting toMarinerwith radio signals that switched on the instruments for earth’s first close-up exploration of another planet. Against great odds,Mariner 2hurled across 180 million miles of space with a small haven full of instruments prepared to unravel the secrets of Earth’s cloud-shrouded neighbor. Newspaper articles speculated about finding clues “to the possibility of the...

  22. 16 Pioneers to the Outer Planets
    (pp. 229-247)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt20mvbft.22

    Redondo Beach, California—January 1972. Van Allen could almost catch his reflection in Iowa’s glittering gold box fitted with particle counters forPioneer 10’s journey to the outer planets. The instruments on the mission promised the world a front-row seat for new discoveries at Jupiter. Astronomers gave good odds for radiation belts at Jupiter based on the hot glow around the planet that their radio telescopes measured from afar. But no one knew for sure. The gold-cased detector that drew less power than a Christmas-tree light could help unravel such mysteries.

    TRW Systems built the spacecraft and Van Allen traveled...

  23. 17 Space Politics
    (pp. 248-264)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt20mvbft.23

    Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California—January 24, 1986. Van Allen joined colleagues at a Planetary Society banquet in Hollywood before heading to Pasadena on Thursday, January 23, for the big day at JPL. Friday broughtVoyager 2within 50,000 miles of Uranus.

    Scientists had waited eight years and 2 billion miles for this day. Project scientists Norm Ness of the Goddard Space Flight Center invited Van Allen to the encounter as a guest of his magnetometer team. “I was thereby admitted to the investigators’ ‘inner sanctum’ and was able to circulate fully in the working areas, attend science group meetings,...

  24. 18 Journey to the Edge of the Solar System
    (pp. 265-276)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt20mvbft.24

    Iowa City, Iowa—October 9, 2004. The debate simmered as top space scientists from across the world gathered for James Van Allen’s ninetieth birthday colloquium. Amid the cocktail parties, personal reunions, and technical papers, Tom Krimigis of APL insistedVoyager 1had crossed the inner boundary of the solar system and Frank McDonald of the University of Maryland saidVoyagerhadn’t crossed yet. Both had instruments on the mission, both stood at the peaks of their profession, and both painted competing pictures of realms of the solar system never before explored.

    The debate between Krimigis, one of Van Allen’s former...

  25. Notes
    (pp. 277-294)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt20mvbft.25
  26. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 295-306)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt20mvbft.26
  27. Index
    (pp. 307-322)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt20mvbft.27