- Press Release
- September 24, 2022
U.S. Space Pioneer, UI Professor James A. Van Allen Dies
IOWA CITY, Iowa (Updated Wednesday, August 9, 2006 11:05 AM ) — Dr. James A. Van Allen, U.S. space pioneer and Regent Distinguished Professor of Physics in the University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, died this morning, Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2006 at the age of 91. Arrangements are pending.
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 serve as an interdisciplinary scientist for the Galileo spacecraft, which reached Jupiter on Dec. 7, 1995.
The highlight of Van Allen’s long and distinguished career was his use of UI-built instruments carried aboard the first successful U.S. satellite, Explorer 1, in 1958 to discover bands of intense radiation — later known as the Van Allen radiation belts — surrounding the Earth. It came at the height of the U.S.-Soviet space race and literally put the United States on the map in the field of space exploration.
Among the other accomplishments of which he was most proud was his 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. Ever a critic of manned space flight, Van Allen the scientist described himself as “a member of the loyal opposition” when it came to discussions of big-budget space programs, declaring that space science could be done better and more cheaply when left to remote-controlled, unmanned spacecraft. NASA’s move toward cheaper, more focused unmanned spacecraft during the 1990s was, at least in part, a result of Van Allen’s advocacy.
“Jim Van Allen was my friend and role model,” said UI Interim President Gary Fethke. “He represented the very image of a superb faculty member. His teaching prowess was legendary, his research was defining, and his collegiality and service were unmatched. I will always be grateful for his kindness to my family and to me, and I will always be inspired and motivated by his complete dedication to the University of Iowa. I will miss him greatly. On behalf of the entire University community, I extend our sympathies to the Van Allen family.”
UI Provost Michael Hogan said, “James Van Allen was one of the university’s most influential and best-regarded scholars of all time. Yet he remained the most unassuming and caring man. We will all miss him deeply.”
Tom Boggess, chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy, said his entire department was saddened by the news of Van Allen’s death.
“We offer our deepest sympathies to his family,” Boggess said. “For decades, Dr. Van Allen has been an inspiration and a role model to our faculty, staff, and students. His dedication to science and discovery, as well as to teaching and public service were unmatched. In so many ways, Dr. Van Allen defined our department. He will be sorely missed.”
Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack also remembered Van Allen’s contributions as a scientist and as a human being.
“Jim Van Allen was a good friend of our family,” Vilsack said. “His loss saddens Christie and me. His passing is a sad day for science in America and the world. He was a great teacher and mentor. His love for the University was as limitless as the universe he explored with such passion and energy. He will be missed.”
Born in Mount Pleasant on Sept. 7, 1914, Van Allen was valedictorian of his high school class in 1931, and received his bachelor’s degree in physics, summa cum laude, from Iowa Wesleyan College in 1935. While an undergraduate at Iowa Wesleyan, he assisted the senior scientist of the second Byrd Expedition (1934-35) to Antarctica in preparing seismic and magnetic experimental equipment. (In 2004, the American Polar Society commemorated his work by presenting Van Allen with its Honors of the Society award.) He earned his master’s and doctorate from the University of Iowa in 1936 and 1939, respectively.
From 1940 through 1942, he helped develop radio proximity fuzes — detonators to increase the effectiveness of anti-aircraft fire — for the defense of ships. Sponsored by the National Defense Research Council, his work was conducted at the Carnegie Institution of Washington and at the Applied Physics Laboratory of Johns Hopkins University. In November 1942, he was commissioned as a naval officer, and he served 16 months on various ships in the South Pacific Fleet as assistant staff gunnery officer.
In 1946, Van Allen returned to the Applied Physics Laboratory where he organized and directed a team to conduct high-altitude experimental work using V2 and Aerobee rockets, and, in 1951, he accepted a Guggenheim research fellowship at the Brookhaven National Laboratory.
Later in 1951, Van Allen became professor and head of the University of Iowa Department of Physics and Astronomy, a position he held until he retired from teaching in 1985. During the 1950s, he and his graduate students used the UI football practice field to launch rockets and “rockoons” — rockets carried aloft by balloons — to conduct cosmic ray experiments above the atmosphere. A highlight of that work was the 1953 discovery of electrons believed to be the driving force behind the aurora. In 1956, he proposed the use of U.S. satellites for cosmic-ray investigations and through “preparedness and good fortune,” he later wrote, the experiment was selected as the principal payload for the first flight of a four-stage Jupiter C rocket.
Van Allen played an important role in planning 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. IGY culminated in the Jan. 31, 1958 launch of Explorer 1 and its scientific payload. Van Allen’s instruments included a Geiger counter, which provided information that regions of intense radiation surround the Earth. The discovery marked the birth of the research field of magnetospheric physics, an enterprise that grew to involve more than 1,000 investigators in more than 20 countries.
In 1974 People Magazine listed Van Allen as one of the top 10 teaching college professors in the country. His former graduate students list among their accomplishments experiments on NASA’s Pioneer 10 and 11, Voyager 1 and 2, Galileo and Cassini spacecraft.
Van Allen joined the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in 1948 and served as the organization’s president from 1982 until 1984. He has received the AGU’s highest honors, including the John A. Fleming Award in 1963 for eminence in geophysics and the William Bowie Medal in 1977 for outstanding contributions to fundamental geophysics and for unselfish cooperation in research.
In 1994, Van Allen received the 1994 Gerard P. Kuiper Prize from the Division of Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society “in recognition of his many contributions to the field of planetary science, both through his investigations of planetary magnetospheres and through his advocacy of planetary exploration.” Also in 1994, he was presented with a lifetime achievement award by NASA on the occasion of his 80th birthday and the American Geophysical Union’s 75th anniversary.
Van Allen’s many other awards and honors include membership in the National Academy of Sciences since 1959 and the National Medal of Science, the nation’s highest honor for scientific achievement, presented in 1987 by President Reagan in ceremonies at the White House. In 1989, he received the Crafoord Prize, awarded by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm and presented by the King of Sweden. The Crafoord Prize is the highest award the Academy can bestow for research in a number of scientific fields and, for space exploration, is the equivalent of the Nobel Prize.
Perhaps his proudest achievement as an educator was leaving his mark on 34 doctoral students, 47 master’s degree students and, especially, the numerous undergraduates who enjoyed his classes. In a February 2004 interview he said, “I taught ‘General Astronomy’ for 17 years, and it was my favorite course. I spent one or two hours preparing for each lecture because I had a genuine enthusiasm for the course. Today, I run into people all the time who say, ‘You don’t remember me, but I took your course in 1985.’ Many former students tell me how much they enjoyed the course.”
Van Allen is survived by his wife, Abigail Fithian Halsey II Van Allen, his five children — Cynthia Van Allen Schaffner of New York City; Dr. Margot Van Allen Cairns of Vancouver, British Columbia; Sarah Van Allen Trimble of Washington, D.C.; Thomas Van Allen of Aspen, Colo.; and Peter Van Allen of Philadelphia — and seven grandchildren.
STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 301, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500.
MEDIA CONTACT: Stephen J. Pradarelli, University News Services Director, 319-384-0007, 319-621-5263 (cell), or email@example.com. Writer: Gary Galluzzo.