James A. Van Allen (1914-2006)

James A. Van Allen was a pathbreaking astrophysicist best known for his work in magnetospheric physics. Van Allen graduated from Iowa Wesleyan College in 1935. He then enrolled at the University of Iowa where he received an M.S. in 1936 and a Ph.D. in 1939. Following school, Van Allen accepted employment with the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, where he studied photodisintegration. In April 1942 Van Allen moved to the Applied Physics Laboratory at the Johns Hopkins University where he worked to develop a rugged vacuum tube. He also helped to develop proximity fuzes for weapons used in the war, especially for anti-aircraft projectiles used by the U.S. Navy. By the fall of 1942, he had been commissioned as an officer in the Navy and was sent to the Pacific to field test and complete operational requirements for the proximity fuzes. Upon completing his assignments in World War II, Van Allen returned to civilian life and began working in high altitude research, first for the Applied Physics Laboratory and, after 1950, at the University of Iowa. Van Allen's career took an important turn in 1955 when he and several other American scientists developed proposals for the launch of a scientific satellite as part of the research program conducted during the International Geophysical Year (IGY) of 1957-1958. After the success of the Soviet Union with Sputnik 1, Van Allen's Explorer spacecraft was approved for launch on a Redstone rocket. It flew on 31 January 1958, and returned enormously important scientific data about the radiation belts circling the Earth. Van Allen became a celebrity because of the success of that mission, and he went on to other important scientific projects in space. In one way or another, Van Allen was involved in the first four Explorer probes, the first Pioneers, several Mariner efforts, and the orbiting geophysical observatory. James A. Van Allen retired from the University of Iowa in 1985 to become Carver Professor of Physics, Emeritus, after having served as the head of the Department of Physics and Astronomy from 1951. See James A. Van Allen, Origins of Magnetospheric Physics (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1983); David E. Newton, "James A. Van Allen," in Emily J. McMurray, ed., Notable Twentieth-Century Scientists (New York: Gale Research Inc., 1995), pp. 2070-72; "James A. Van Allen," biographical file, NASA Historical Reference Collection, NASA History Division, NASA Headquarters, Washington, DC. Also click here for a NASA tribute to Van Allen.


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Last Updated: November 20, 2006