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Death of James Van Allen

Last Updated on Sunday, 01 December 2013 20:49
Published on Thursday, 10 August 2006 00:00
vanallen.jpgJames A. Van Allen, Regent Distinguished Professor of Physics in the University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and a founding father of space exploration, has died at the age of 91.

Born in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, on Sept. 7, 1914, Van Allen received his bachelor's degree in physics from Iowa Wesleyan College in 1935. He earned his master's degree and doctorate from the University of Iowa in 1936 and 1939, respectively.

While an undergraduate student at Iowa Wesleyan College, Allen helped prepare scientific equipment for use during the second Byrd Antarctic Expedition, 1934-35. While at the Applied Physics Laboratory of Johns Hopkins University during World War II, he helped develop radio proximity fuses -- detonators to increase the effectiveness of anti-aircraft fire -- for the defence of ships. He served in the U.S. Navy as an ordnance and gunnery officer on combatant ships in the South Pacific for 17 months from 1942-1945.

Following the war, he developed cosmic ray detectors carried by sounding rockets to high altitudes for the study of cosmic rays. In 1950 he led a group that fired Aerobee rockets from a ship in the Gulf of Alaska. He became head of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Iowa in 1951. He and his UI colleagues continued research on cosmic rays and the northern polar aurora with balloon-launched rockets from ships off the northwestern coast of Greenland beginning in 1952.

Van Allen helped organize the 1957-58 International Geophysical Year (IGY) and carried out shipboard expeditions to Greenland and southward to the Ross Sea off the coast of Antarctica in 1957 during the IGY. His instruments, carried aboard the first U.S. satellite, Explorer I, in early 1958 provided data for the discovery of the Van Allen radiation belt.

Van Allen and his research team continued to build payloads for spacecraft. Among his accomplishments was the 1973 first-ever survey of the radiation belts of Jupiter using the Pioneer 10 spacecraft and his 1979 discovery and survey of Saturn's radiation belts using data from the Pioneer 11 spacecraft. During his career, he was the principal investigator for scientific investigations on 24 Earth satellites and planetary missions.

Though he retired from active teaching in 1985, he continued to monitor data from Pioneer 10 throughout the spacecraft's 1972-2003 operational lifetime, and served as an interdisciplinary scientist for the Galileo mission, which reached Jupiter on Dec. 7, 1995. He was also an active participant in the national dialogue over the cost of manned versus unmanned spaceflight.

Van Allen, a member of the National Academy of Sciences since 1959, received many honors, including the 2004 National Space Grant Foundation's Distinguished Service Award. In ceremonies at the White House in 1987, President Ronald Reagan presented him with the National Medal of Science, the nation's highest honour for scientific achievement.

In recognition of his contribution to U. S. space research, Van Allen received 13 honorary doctorates, NASA's Medal of Exceptional Achievement, the Commander of the Order du Merite pour la Recherche et L'Invention, the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society (in 1978) and the Crafoord Prize.
"James Van Allen was one of the greatest and most accomplished American space scientists of our time and few researchers had such wide range of expertise in so many scientific disciplines," said NASA Administrator Michael Griffin. "NASA's path of space exploration is far more advanced today because of Dr. Van Allen's groundbreaking work."