An Iowan who was a pioneer in space has died. James Van Allen, a physics professor at the University of Iowa, died this (Wednesday) morning at the age of 91. Tom Boggess is chairman of the university’s physics department, and he saw Van Allen there every day, until his recent illness.
“Most of us, rightfully, believe that he was the father of space sciences — certainly within our country,” Boggess says. “(He) basically launched the U.S. space program.” Van Allen retired from what the university calls “active teaching” in 1985, but Boggess says Van Allen didn’t retire.
“Up until his recent illness, he was essentially always in the building. Just about every week day he was here working in his office on the seventh floor. It was amazing,” Boggess says. “In fact, he was still publishing papers up until the time of his death.” The radiation belts around the Earth are now known as the Van Allen Belts because Van Allen installed a Geiger counter he made at the University of Iowa in a U.S. satellite that surveyed the Earth’s atmosphere back in 1958.
Discovering those bands of intense radiation helped launch the U.S. forward in the space race against the former Soviet Union. Van Allen was a steadfast critic of manned space flights, arguing space science could be accomplished more-cheaply — and better — with remote-controlled, unmanned spacecraft. He had a prominent role in evaluating the data from many unmanned NASA missions.
For example, in 1973 he helped analyze the data from a spacecraft being used to survey the radiation belts around Jupiter. In 1979, he discovered radiation belts around Saturn. Boggess, the chairman of the department in which Van Allen worked for more than five decades, says Van Allen’s approach to work and to science was an inspiration. “He was quite a role model, not just for faculty in the department, but for students in the department and just for students even from area high schools and students at an even younger age who sometimes just dropped by. He always seemed to make time to chat with folks,” Boggess says. “He was quite a remarkable man.”
The interim president of the University of Iowa has issued a statement calling Van Allen a “friend and role model” whose “teaching prowess was legendary, his research was defining, and his collegiality and service were unmatched.”
Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack issued a statement, saying Van Allen’s death “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.”
Van Allen was born in Mount Pleasant on September 7th, 1914. He was valedictorian of his high school class in 1931, and received a degree in physics from Iowa Wesleyan College in 1935. While he was an undergrad at Iowa Wesleyan, he helped prepare equipment for the experiments conducted in Antarctic by the second Byrd Expedition there in 1934 and ’35. He received his master and doctorate degrees from the University of Iowa.
In the early 1940s, he helped develop detonators that increased the effectiveness of anti-aircraft fire protecting ships. Then, in November of 1942 he was commissioned as a naval officer. He served 16 months on various ships in the South Pacific Fleet as assistant staff gunnery officer. It wasn’t ’til 1951 that Van Allen returned to Iowa City to become professor and head of the University of Iowa Department of Physics and Astronomy.
During the 1950s, Van Allen and his graduate students used the university’s football practice field to launch rockets and rockets carried aloft by balloons to conduct experiments above the atmosphere. He was one of 15 scientists who were named Time Magazine’s man of the year in 1960 and in 1974, People Magazine named Van Allen one of the top 10 “teaching” professors in the country.
In 1994, when he turned 80, NASA presented Van Allen with a lifetime achievement award. In 1989 Van Allen was awarded the Crafoord Prize, which is the equivalent of the Nobel Prize. The King of Sweden presented the award to Van Allen in Stockholm. Van Allen is survived by his wife, five children and seven grandchildren.
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