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James Van Allen

The First Eight Billion Miles

Abigail Foerstner

Publication Year: 2007

Astrophysicist and space pioneer James Van Allen (1914–2006), for whom the Van Allen radiation belts were named, was among the principal scientific investigators for twenty-four space missions, including Explorer I in 1958, the first successful U.S. satellite; Mariner 2’s 1962 flyby of Venus, the first successful mission to another planet; and the 1970s Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 missions that surveyed Jupiter and Saturn. Although he retired as a University of Iowa professor of physics and astronomy in 1985, he remained an active researcher, using his campus office to monitor data from Pioneer 10—on course to reach the edge of the solar system when its signal was lost in 2003—until a short time before his death at the age of ninety-one. Now Abigail Foerstner blends space science drama, military agendas, cold war politics, and the events of Van Allen’s lengthy career to create the first biography of this highly influential physicist.

Drawing on Van Allen’s correspondence and publications, years of interviews with him as well as with more than a hundred other people, and declassified documents from such archives as the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Kennedy Space Center, and the Applied Physics Laboratory, Foerstner describes Van Allen’s life from his Iowa childhood to his first experiments at White Sands to the years of Explorer I until his death in 2006.

Often called the father of space science, James Van Allen led the way to mapping a new solar system based on the solar wind, massive solar storms, and cosmic rays. Pioneer 10 alone sent him more than thirty years of readings that helped push our recognition of the boundary of the solar system billions of miles past Pluto. Abigail Foerstner’s compelling biography charts the eventful life and time of this trailblazing physicist.

Published by: University of Iowa Press


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pp. vii

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Preface and Acknowledgments

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pp. ix-xiii

The corner of Jefferson and Dubuque Streets in Iowa City surely marks one of the world’s epicenters for physics and metaphysics. Within a block, St. Mary’s Catholic Church, the First United Methodist Church, the Congregational United Church of Christ, and Gloria Dei Lutheran Church give voice to metaphysics. ...

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pp. xv-xvii

Pioneer 10 and Voyager 1 raced toward opposite ends of the solar system, each on a path to find its edge. The vastness of space separated James Van Allen’s cosmic ray detectors on Pioneer and Don Gurnett’s radio receiver on Voyager while the offices of the two physicists stood only a few doors apart at the University of Iowa. ...

Abbreviations and Acronyms

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pp. xix-xx

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1. Frontier Roots

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pp. 1-15

Pillar Point, New York—February 24, 1848. Seventeen-year- old George Van Allen relaxed after a day of backbreaking labor in the cold on his family farm. But instead of picking up a book, he began a lifetime habit of writing a journal. The pages to come introduced his parents, his ten brothers and sisters, and their struggle ...

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2. Heartland Boyhood

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pp. 16-34

Mount Pleasant, Iowa—November 11, 1918. Four-year-old James Van Allen and his family pressed into the crowd that packed the town square in Mount Pleasant. The great war in Europe was over, his parents told the child and his brother George. The Germans had surrendered under terms of the Armistice signed that day. ...

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3. The Making of a Scientist

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pp. 35-49

Iowa City, Iowa—September 1935. On a hot, Sunday afternoon in September 1935, Alfred Van Allen parked the Dodge at the side of the house and James loaded two suitcases into the trunk for a more permanent stay at what was then called the State University of Iowa. ...

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4. Physicists to the War Effort

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pp. 50-66

Battle of Saipan, the Philippine Sea—June 19, 1944. Navy Lieutenant James Van Allen watched the first wave of sixty-nine Japanese fighters and bombers swarm in over the Philippine Sea. The Japanese had the advantage of lighter planes with greater range. ...

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5. Enter Abigail Fithian Halsey

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pp. 67-74

Silver Spring, Maryland—March 1945. Soon after Van Allen returned from the South Pacific, he pulled up to the intersection of Colesville Road and Georgia Avenue and waited for the traffic light to turn green. Suddenly, he felt a bump. Abigail Fithian Halsey, the driver in the car in front of him, ...

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6. The Dawn of Space Exploration

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pp. 75-92

White Sands Proving Ground, New Mexico—April 16, 1946. Van Allen had a cosmic ray experiment ready to fly on the first V-2 rocket launch, scheduled for April 16, 1946, at White Sands Proving Ground (now White Sands Missile Range) in New Mexico. The APL group headed there by train and loaded instruments ...

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7. The Mighty Little Aerobee

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pp. 93-105

White Sands Proving Ground, New Mexico—May 1947. The U.S. Navy leased space at White Sands and began construction of a 150-foot launching tower that May for a streamlined new research rocket, the Aerobee. The rocket stood 19 feet high, compared to the 46.5-foot V-2. ...

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8. It’s a Rocket! It’s a Balloon! It’s a Rockoon!

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pp. 106-121

U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Eastwind, Thule, Greenland— July 29, 1952. Van Allen boarded the USCGC Eastwind with an unlikely crew of space explorers—two graduate students, a university technician, balloon experts from General Mills Corporation, and a lieutenant from the Office of Naval Research. ...

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9. Sputnik and the Space Race

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pp. 122-141

Iowa City, Iowa—November 16, 1956. Van Allen picked up the phone and recognized the courtly but urgent voice of Ernst Stuhlinger even before the physicist identified himself. Stuhlinger cut straight to the point. A launch of a Jupiter C rocket in September could have sent a satellite into orbit but, ...

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10. Countdown to Explorer I

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pp. 142-160

USS Glacier—Sunday, September 22, 1957. Van Allen made a final trip to shore at the Boston Navy Yard that Sunday to call home one more time before he headed for the Antarctic on Iowa’s IGY’s rockoon expedition. As soon as he got back on ship, Iowa graduate student Larry Cahill arrived and settled in. ...

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11. Celebrity Scientist and the Birth of NASA

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pp. 161-174

The White House—February 4, 1958. Abbie Van Allen’s life changed forever a few hours after Explorer I went into orbit. She awoke that Saturday morning with a long list of chores, errands to run, four kids clamoring for her attention, and a phone that never stopped ringing. ...

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12. Discovery of the Radiation Belts

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pp. 175-186

Cape Canaveral—March 26, 1958. The Jupiter C stood iridescent in the dawn sky, shrouded by plumes of liquid oxygen a few hours before launch time. George Ludwig, Jack Froelich of JPL, and other JPL satellite engineers watched it with subdued anxiety when it finally soared skyward in a bolt of scarlet flame. ...

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13. Space Shield for the Cold War

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pp. 187-199

Moscow, Cosmic Ray Conference—July 1959.To the astonishment of Sergei Vernov, Leonid Sedov, and other Russian physicists present at the academy meeting, guest scientist James Van Allen spelled out detailed findings of the top secret Project Argus, the prototype project that tested the creation of a space shield ...

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14. Space as a Cottage Industry

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pp. 200-212

Fairfax, Iowa—April 1962. Only the crickets broke the stillness of the night as University of Iowa electrical engineering senior Don Gurnett headed across his father’s farm in Fairfax. He carried a handmade radio receiver with a loop antenna constructed of fifty turns of wire. ...

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15. The Mariners

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pp. 213-228

Venus—December 14, 1962. The tiny Mariner 2 spacecraft neared the end of a 109-day voyage to the brightest jewel then visible in the dawn sky. Centuries of human beings had greeted Venus as the morning star. Now JPL scientists sent a greeting to Mariner with radio signals that switched on the instruments ...

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16. Pioneers to the Outer Planets

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pp. 229-247

Redondo Beach, California—January 1972. Van Allen could almost catch his reflection in Iowa’s glittering gold box fitted with particle counters for Pioneer 10’s journey to the outer planets. The instruments on the mission promised the world a front-row seat for new discoveries at Jupiter. ...

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17. Space Politics

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pp. 248-264

Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California— January 24, 1986. Van Allen joined colleagues at a Planetary Society banquet in Hollywood before heading to Pasadena on Thursday, January 23, for the big day at JPL. Friday brought Voyager 2 within 50,000 miles of Uranus. ...

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18. Journey to the Edge of the Solar System

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pp. 265-276

Iowa City, Iowa—October 9, 2004.The debate simmered as top space scientists from across the world gathered for James Van Allen’s ninetieth birthday colloquium. Amid the cocktail parties, personal reunions, and technical papers, Tom Krimigis of APL insisted Voyager 1 had crossed the inner boundary of the solar system ...


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pp. 277-294

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 295-306


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pp. 307-322

E-ISBN-13: 9781587297205
E-ISBN-10: 1587297205
Print-ISBN-13: 9780877459996
Print-ISBN-10: 0877459991

Page Count: 376
Publication Year: 2007

Edition: 1