Renowned Physicist and Space Pioneer James Van Allen Dies at 91

Physicist James A. Van Allen's experiments in the late 1950s taught scientists to look at space in a whole new way - not as a vacuum but as a place pulsating with energy, waiting to be explored.


Physicist James A. Van Allen's experiments in the late 1950s taught scientists to look at space in a whole new way - not as a vacuum but as a place pulsating with energy, waiting to be explored.

Van Allen, who died Wednesday at age 91, discovered the belts of radiation surrounding the Earth that are now known as the Van Allen Belts. The University of Iowa, where he taught for decades, announced the death in a statement on its Web site.

"He was one of the most important people in the entire area of space science," said Thomas Zurbuchen, professor of space science and aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan.

"What he did for our understanding was really a crucial step into bringing humanity into space," he said. "What he's done has shown that space is an immensely interesting place."

In a career that stretched over more than a half-century, Van Allen designed scientific instruments for dozens of research flights, first with small rockets and balloons, and eventually with space probes that traveled to distant planets and beyond.

The Van Allen Belts were discovered by instruments he designed and placed aboard the first U.S. satellite, Explorer I. It was launched Jan. 31, 1958, amid Cold War tensions heightened by the Soviets' launch of the first Sputnik satellite the previous October.

Thirty-five years later, Van Allen recalled in an Associated Press interview how scientists waited tensely for confirmation the Explorer satellite was in orbit.

When the signal finally came, "it was exhilarating. ... That was the big break, knowing it had made it around the Earth, that it was actually in orbit." The data showing the existence of the radiation belts came in over the next weeks and months.

"We had discovered a whole new phenomenon which had not been known or predicted before," Van Allen said. "We were really on top of the world, professionally speaking."

The discovery of the belts spawned a whole new field of research known as magnetospheric physics. Frank McDonald, a former NASA chief scientist now at the University of Maryland, said none of the other experiments aboard the earliest satellites had the impact of Van Allen's.

"Many of my generation really went into space science because of that discovery," said Edward Stone, professor of physics at the California Institute of Technology. "It revealed a whole new area of science that was just waiting to be discovered."

"What Van Allen did for us ... is to show that there is a whole world out there ... beyond the atmosphere."

Zurbuchen never had the chance to work with Van Allen, but relished the opportunity to meet him at conferences, equating it to meeting a sports hero or rock star.

The folksy, pipe-smoking scientist, called "Van" by friends, retired from full-time teaching in 1985. But he continued to write, oversee research, counsel students and monitor data gathered by satellites. He worked in a large, cluttered corner office on the seventh floor of the physics and astronomy building that bears his name.

In 1987, President Reagan presented Van Allen with the National Medal of Science, the nation's highest honor for scientific achievement.

Two years later, Van Allen received the Crafoord Prize, awarded by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm each year since 1982 for scientific research in areas not recognized by the Nobel Prizes.

Though he was an early advocate of a concerted national space program, Van Allen was a strong critic of most manned space projects, once dismissing the U.S. proposal for a manned space station "speculative and ... poorly founded."

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