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Death Claims Physicist and Space Pioneer
James Van Allen

August 11, 2006

Physicist James Van Allen, who died Wednesday at the age of 91, discovered the belts of radiation surrounding the Earth that are now know as the Van Allen Belts. His death was announced by the University of Iowa, on its website. Van Allen taught at the University of Iowa for decades.

In the 1950s Van Allen 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.

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 January 31, 1958, amid Cold War tensions heightened by the Soviets' launch of the first Sputnik satellite the previous October.

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

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

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 as "speculative and...poorly founded."

Van Allen was born September 7, 1914, in Mount Pleasant, Iowa. As an undergraduate of Wesleyan College, he helped prepare research instruments for one of Admiral Richard E. Byrd's Antarctic expeditions. He received his master's and Ph.D from the University of Iowa.

After serving in the Naval Reserve during World War II, he as a researcher at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md.,supervising tests of captured German V-2 rockets and developing similar rockets to probe the upper atmosphere.

One of the highlights of this early research was the 1953 discovery of electrons believed to be the driving force behind the northern and southern lights.

Van Allen was named to the National Academy of Sciences in 1959. He also was a consultant to the U.S. Congress Office of Technology Assessment, NASA and the Space Studies Board of the National Academy of Sciences.

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