Iowa Alumni Magazine | October 2006 | People

Fallen Star: James Van Allen

By Kathryn Howe
The UI bids farewell to an unforgettable space legend.

James Van Allen Photo: Cedar Rapids Gazette
"Certainly one of the most enthralling things about human life is the recognition that we live in what, for prectical purposes, is a universe without bounds." — James Van Allen

As the world responded to the death of UI physicist and space pioneer James Van Allen this past summer, one particularly poignant editorial cartoon captured the lasting legacy of a man devoted to the heavens: an outline of his face among the stars.

After 60 years of unparalleled space physics research, Van Allen died on August 9 from heart failure at the age of 91.

A founding father of the U.S. space program, Van Allen is credited with the first major scientific discovery of the space age: rings of intense radiation—later named the Van Allen Belts—trapped within Earth's magnetic field. The highlight of Van Allen's storied career, this discovery put the United States on the map during the height of the U.S.-Soviet space race and first landed him on the cover of Time magazine in 1959.

"James Van Allen was one of the greatest and most accomplished American space scientists of our time," said National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) administrator Michael Griffin. "NASA's path of space exploration is far more advanced today because of Dr. Van Allen's groundbreaking work."

Van Allen, 36MS, 39PhD, spent the majority of his career as a physics professor at the University of Iowa, where he chaired the Department of Physics and Astronomy from 1951 until 1985. It was at the UI that Van Allen developed a scientific instrument  for America's first satellite, Explorer I.

On January 31, 1958, NASA launched Explorer I in response to the Soviet Union's Sputnik I. The satellite, which produced the data that led to the discovery of the radiation belts, marked the first of some 30 missions featuring the work of Van Allen to explore the physical makeup of the solar system. Such ongoing research earned Van Allen many honors, including the National Medal of Science, the Crafoord Prize from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, NASA's lifetime achievement award, and the UI Alumni Association's Distinguished Alumni Award.

Even after his retirement, Van Allen maintained a regular presence at the UI physics building that bears his name. He conducted research, studied data collected from ongoing satellite missions, and met with students. He pursued his passion until the day he died, continuing to work from his bed at UI Hospitals and Clinics.

Van Allen trained countless space scientists and astrophysicists and he was particularly proud of his achievements as an educator. In published tributes and online condolences after his death, former students, friends, and colleagues from across the globe illustrated his unmistakable reach through heartfelt notes of remembrance. They recalled him as a hardworking Iowan with a passion for knowledge, a mentor whose modesty and wisdom kept him humble in spite of his many accomplishments.