James Alfred Van Allen

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James Alfred Van Allen

Birthplace: Mount Pleasant, Henry County, Iowa, United States
Death: Died in Iowa City, Johnson County, Iowa, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of Alfred Morris van Allen and Alma van Allen

Occupation: Astrophysicist
Managed by: Gene Daniell
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About James Alfred Van Allen


James Alfred Van Allen (September 7, 1914 – August 9, 2006) was an American space scientist at the University of Iowa.

The Van Allen radiation belts were named after him, following the 1958 satellite missions (Explorer 1 and Explorer 3) in which Van Allen had argued that a Geiger counter should be used to detect charged particles.

Life and career

September 7, 1914: James Van Allen was born in Mount Pleasant, Iowa. His boyhood home, once maintained as a museum to him, is slated to be demolished soon. The new owner, Lee Pennebaker, has chosen not to demolish the home. It will be donated to the Henry County Heritage Trust, which plans on moving the house next to the old Saunders School which will be the home of the Henry County museum

1931: Van Allen graduated as valedictorian of Mount Pleasant Public High School.
1935: Van Allen received his Bachelor of Science degree, summa cum laude, from Iowa Wesleyan College in Mount Pleasant. During his undergraduate years, he studied with Professor Thomas Poulter, a first-class physicist. He tracked meteors, conducted a magnetic survey of Mount Pleasant, and measured cosmic rays at ground level.
1936: Van Allen earned his master’s degree in solid state physics from the University of Iowa.
1939: Van Allen received his Ph.D. in nuclear physics from the University of Iowa. His doctoral research was on measuring the cross-section of the deuteron-deuteron reaction.
1940: As a staff physicist for the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism of the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C., Van Allen worked on developing photoelectric and radio Proximity fuses for bombs, rockets, and gun-fired projectiles. It was here that Van Allen acquired his interest in cosmic rays.
1942: Van Allen joined the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) of Johns Hopkins University to continue his work on proximity fuses. Later in 1942, he entered the Navy, serving in the South Pacific Fleet as an assistant gunnery officer.
1946: Discharged from the Navy, Van Allen returned to civilian research at APL. He organized and directed a team at Johns Hopkins University to conduct high-altitude experiments, using V-2 rockets captured from the Germans at the end of World War II. Van Allen decided a small sounding rocket was needed for upper atmosphere research and the Aerojet WAC Corporal and the Bumblebee missile were developed under a US Navy program. He drew specifications for the Aerobee and headed the committee that convinced the U.S. government to produce it.
December 29, 1947: Van Allen elected chairman of the V-2 Upper Atmosphere Panel. The panel was renamed Upper Atmosphere Rocket Research Panel on March 18, 1948; then Rocket and Satellite Research Panel on April 29, 1948. The panel suspended operations on May 19, 1960 and had a reunion on February 2, 1968.
March 1, 1949: Cmdr. Lee Lewis, Cmdr. G. Halvorson, S. F. Singer, and James A. Van Allen develop the idea for the Rockoon during the Aerobee rocket firing cruise of the U.S.S. Norton Sound.

In 1950 an event occurred that began small but was to affect the future of Van Allen and all his countrymen. In March, British Physicist Sydney Chapman dropped in on Van Allen [and] remarked that he would like to meet other scientists in the Washington area. Van Allen got on the phone, soon gathered eight or ten top scientists (Lloyd Berkner, S. Fred Singer, and Harry Vestine) in the living room of his small brick house. ‘It was what you might call a pedigreed bull session,’ he says. ... The talk turned to geophysics and the two ‘International Polar Years’ that had enlisted the world’s leading nations to study the Arctic and Antarctic regions in 1882 and 1932. Someone suggested that with the development of new tools such as rockets, radar and computers, the time was ripe for a worldwide geophysical year. The other men were enthusiastic, and their enthusiasm spread around the world from Washington DC. From this meeting Lloyd Berkner and other participants proposed to the International Council of Scientific Unions that an IGY be planned for 1957-58 during the maximum solar activity). ... The International Geophysical Year (1957-58) stimulated the U.S. Government to promise earth satellites as geophysical tools. The Soviet government countered by rushing its Sputniks into orbit. The race into space or Space Race may be said to have started in Van Allen’s living room that evening in 1950.

— TIME, 1959

April 5, 1950: Van Allen left APL to accept a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation research fellowship at the Brookhaven National Laboratory.
1951: Van Allen became head of the physics department at the University of Iowa. Before long, he was enlisting students in his efforts to discover the secrets of the wild blue yonder and inventing ways to carry instruments higher into the atmosphere than ever before. Van Allen was the first to devise a balloon-rocket combination that lifted rockets on balloons high above most of Earth’s atmosphere before firing them even higher. The rockets were ignited after the balloons reached an altitude of 16 kilometers.
1952: As TIME reported in 1959, "Van Allen’s ‘Rockoons’ could not be fired in Iowa for fear that the spent rockets would strike an Iowan or his house." So Van Allen convinced the U.S. Coast Guard to let him fire his rockoons from the icebreaker Eastwind that was bound for Greenland. "The first balloon rose properly to 70,000 ft., but the rocket hanging under it did not fire. The second Rockoon behaved in the same maddening way. On the theory that extreme cold at high altitude might have stopped the clockwork supposed to ignite the rockets, Van Allen heated cans of orange juice, snuggled them into the third Rockoon’s gondola, and wrapped the whole business in insulation. The rocket fired."
1953: Rockoons fired off Newfoundland detect the first hint of radiation belts surrounding Earth. The low-cost Rockoon technique was later used by the Office of Naval Research and The University of Iowa research groups in 1953-55 and 1957, from ships in sea between Boston and Thule, Greenland.
January 26, 1956: Symposium on "The Scientific Uses of Earth Satellites" held at the University of Michigan under sponsorship of the Upper Atmosphere Rocket Research Panel, James A. Van Allen of The University of Iowa, Chairman.

September 26, 1957: Thirty-six Rockoons (balloon-launched rockets) were launched from Navy icebreaker U.S.S. Glacier in Atlantic, Pacific, and Antarctic areas ranging from 75° N. to 72° S. latitude, as part of the U.S. International Geophysical Year scientific program headed by James A. Van Allen and Lawrence J. Cahill of The University of Iowa. These were the first known upper atmosphere rocket soundings in the Antarctic area. Launched from IGY Rockoon Launch Site 2, Atlantic Ocean; Latitude: 0.83° N, Longitude: 0.99° W.
October 4, 1957: The Soviet Union (USSR) successfully launches Sputnik 1, the world's first artificial satellite, as part of their participation in the IGY.
January 31, 1958: The first American satellite, Explorer 1, was launched into Earth's orbit on a Jupiter C missile from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Aboard Explorer 1 were a micrometeorite detector and a cosmic ray experiment designed by Van Allen and his graduate students. Data from Explorer 1 and Explorer 3 (launched March 26, 1958) were used by the Iowa group to make the first space-age scientific discovery: the existence of a doughnut-shaped region of charged particle radiation trapped by Earth’s magnetic field.
July 1958: United States Congress passed the National Aeronautics and Space Act (commonly called the "Space Act"), which created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) as of October 1, 1958 from the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and other government agencies.
December 6, 1958: Pioneer 3, the third intended U.S. International Geophysical Year lunar probe under the direction of NASA with the Army acting as executive agent, was launched from the Atlantic Missile Range by a Juno II rocket. The primary objective of the flight, to place the 12.95 pound (5.87 kg) scientific payload in the vicinity of the moon, failed. Pioneer III did reach an altitude of 63,000 miles (101 Mm), providing Van Allen additional data that led to discovery of a second radiation belt. Trapped radiation starts at an altitude of several hundred miles from Earth and extends for several thousand miles into space. The Van Allen radiation belts are named for Van Allen, their discoverer.
May 4, 1959: TIME magazine writers credited Van Allen as the man most responsible for giving the U.S. "a big lead in scientific achievement." They called Van Allen "a key figure in the cold war’s competition for prestige. ...Today he can tip back his head and look at the sky. Beyond its outermost blue are the world-encompassing belts of fierce radiation that bear his name. No human name has ever been given to a more majestic feature of the planet Earth."
1960 - 1985: Van Allen, his colleagues, associates and students at The University of Iowa continued to fly scientific instruments on sounding rockets, Earth satellites (Explorer 52 / Hawkeye 1), and interplanetary spacecraft including the first missions (Pioneer program, Mariner program, Voyager program, Galileo spacecraft) to the planets Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Their discoveries contributed important segments to the world's knowledge of energetic particles, plasmas and radio waves throughout the solar system.
1985: Van Allen stepped down as the head of the Dept. of Physics & Astronomy in 1985, but continued his work at the University and served as the Carver Professor of Physics, Emeritus.
October 9, 2004: The University of Iowa and the UI Alumni Association hosted a celebration to honor Van Allen and his many accomplishments, and in recognition of his 90th birthday. Activities included an invited lecture series, a public lecture followed by a cake and punch reception, and an evening banquet.
August 2005: An Elementary School bearing his name opens in North Liberty, Iowa.
August 9, 2006: Van Allen died at University Hospitals in Iowa City from heart failure


TIME magazine Man of the Year in 1960
Elliott Cresson Medal in 1961
Distinguished Fellow, Iowa Academy of Science in 1975
Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1978
National Medal of Science in 1987
Crafoord Prize in 1989
Vannevar Bush Award in 1991
NASA's Lifetime Achievement Award in 1994
National Air and Space Museum Trophy in 2006


"Certainly one of the most enthralling things about human life is the recognition that we live in what, for practical purposes, is a universe without bounds."

"...Outer space, once a region of spirited international competition, is also a region of international cooperation. I realized this as early as 1959, when I attended an international conference on cosmic radiation in Moscow. At this conference, there were many differing views and differing methods of attack, but the problems were common ones to all of us and a unity of basic purpose was everywhere evident.
"Many of the papers presented there depended in an essential way upon others which had appeared originally in as many as three or four different languages. Surely science is one of the universal human activities.
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James Alfred Van Allen's Timeline

September 7, 1914
Mount Pleasant, Henry County, Iowa, United States
August 9, 2006
Age 91
Iowa City, Johnson County, Iowa, United States