James A. Van Allen (1914–2006)

vanallenJames A. Van Allen was born in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, on September 7, 1914. He received his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Iowa in 1939 and was a Research Fellow at the Carnegie Institution of Washington’s Department of Terrestrial Magnetism until 1942. As a Navy officer during World War II, he worked at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), where he helped develop the proximity fuse, and then sailed with the Pacific Fleet to advise on the use and operation of this important device. After the war, he worked at APL on instrumenting V-2 rockets for scientific research and on various rocket- and balloon-borne instruments for studying cosmic rays at high altitudes and high latitudes. He also headed the development of the first sounding rocket, the Aerobee. In 1951 he returned to the University of Iowa as Head of the Department of Physics and Astronomy, where he remained an active and respected scientist and teacher.

It was at Van Allen’s home in 1950 that he, Sidney Chapman, Lloyd Berkner, S. Fred Singer, Harry Vestine, and others developed the first plans for an International Geophysical Year (IGY); a coordinated, international, and comprehensive study of Earth for an 18-month period from July 1957 through December 1958. This first integrated study of Earth as a planet ushered in the space age by providing the model for large-scale, government-funded science, and because the United States and the Soviet Union included the first satellite launchings in their contributions. Van Allen’s instruments were aboard the first successful American satellites, Explorers 1 and 3, launched in 1958, and provided data for the first space-age scientific discovery: the existence of a doughnut-shaped region of charged particle radiation trapped by Earth’s magnetic field. With various colleagues he sent instruments to the Moon (Explorer 35), Venus (Mariners 2 and 5), Mars (Mariner 4), Jupiter (Pioneers 10 and 11), and Saturn, and throughout interplanetary space, serving as principal investigator on more than 25 space science missions. Author of nearly 200 papers, he personally directed the dissertations of most of the scores young scientists receiving Ph.D. degrees in space physics from the University of Iowa.

Van Allen was been among the most sought-after committee members and advisers, working with the highest levels of government and scientific administration. A member of the National Academy of Sciences’ Space Science Board at its inception in 1958 and working with NASA since its creation in 1959, he helped plan and select the initial suite of space-based observations and experiments. He was among the most influential of individuals in the late 1960s, laying the groundwork for the exploration of the outer solar system and the missions that became Pioneer 10 and 11, Voyager, and Galileo. He was an articulate and outspoken advocate of small, inexpensive missions long before this view became popular.

A member of the American Geophysical Union since 1948, Van Allen helped to organize the first planetary sciences section in 1959 and served as its President from 1964 to 1968. He was President of AGU’s solar-planetary relationships section from 1976 to 1978. Van Allen was elected an AGU Fellow and named John Adam Fleming Medalist in 1963,was awarded the William Bowie Medal in 1977, and served as Union President from 1982-1984.

Joseph N. Tatarewicz

University of Maryland Baltimore County
Catonsville, Maryland