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January 2, 2008 > James Van Allen: The First Eight Billion Miles

James Van Allen: The First Eight Billion Miles

Book Review

By Robert A. Garfinkle, FRAS

James Van Allen: The First Billion Miles, by Abigail Foerstner, (University of Iowa Press), 2007. Pp. 376, index, 16 x 24 cm. Price: $37.50 (hardback; ISBN 0-87745-921-5), (paperback; 978-0-87745-921-7).

During the last 50 years, we have sent robotic spacecraft to explore the region near the Earth, all of the planets except Pluto, and there are craft that are still heading toward the outer edge of the Milky Way Galaxy. The contributions of one man, James Van Allen of the University of Iowa, set him apart from all of the other early space pioneers as the father of spacecraft instrumentation. This biography of astrophysicist and space pioneer James Van Allen, by science writer Abigail Foerstner, places him in his times and elegantly tells us the history of this man and his scientific accomplishments. If you know anything about space exploration, you probably know of the Van Allen Radiation Belts that encircle the Earth, but you may not know that Van Allen is also an unsung hero of World War II.

Before I read this book, I was unaware that James Van Allen had helped to develop the proximity fuses used in antiaircraft shells. Proximity fuses cause a shell to explode when it gets near an aircraft, so it does not have to hit the target in order to bring down the enemy plane. Shortly after thousands of these shells were delivered to the American troops in the South Pacific in 1943, the shells began failing to explode. Van Allen was sent out to the Pacific to find out what the problem was. He discovered that the batteries in the shells were deteriorating. Van Allen and a crew of navy gunner's mates worked around the clock in the heat and sultry humidity at Tillage to replace thousands of shell batteries. The secret proximity fuse-armed shells were then very effective in shooting down hundreds of Japanese fighters in defense of our naval forces.

James Van Allen's greatest achievements were centered on his teaching physics and astronomy at the University of Iowa, which in turn supported his efforts to explore the source of cosmic rays and his discovery of the radiation belts that bear his name. Foerstner gives life to what otherwise might be a dull reading of a scientist's life. She takes us to Van Allen's early attempts using weather balloons with instruments and a combination of weather balloon with an instrument package inside a rocket attached to the balloon. This was called a "rockoon" and was used to lift his instruments to higher elevations than the balloons alone could go. Van Allen worked with German scientists who were brought to America after World War II to teach us how to build and launch the V-2 rockets that we had captured. These German rocket scientists were led by Wernher von Braun. Van Allen was able to insert various packages of Geiger counters and telemetry instruments into the rocket nose cones in furtherance of his search for the source of cosmic rays.

In addition to his teaching assignments, Van Allen also served as head of the physics department and oversaw construction of his instruments in the laboratory and workshops located in the basement of the physics building. A number of his graduate students worked on the instruments at Iowa, then went on to lead other spacecraft instrumentation efforts at private and government facilities. These former colleagues kept in touch with Van Allen and many of them went to the 90th birthday scientific colloquium celebration for Van Allen in October 2004. One of the photographs in the book that I really like shows Van Allen at the colloquium holding up a T-shirt that states: "Actually I am a Rocket Scientist."

The subtitle of the book refers to the fact that when James Van Allen died at the age of 92 in 2006, his radiation detectors on board the Pioneer 10 spacecraft were still working and sending back data from a distance of over eight billion miles from earth after 30 years in space. For her compelling and informative biography, Foerstner has combined the drama of early spaceflight failures and successes, cold war politics that led to the "Space Race," Van Allen's dealings with his numerous graduate students and their efforts to create the instrument packages for many space flights, and the events in Van Allen's personal life. She was able to interview her subject for a number of years before he died and was given access to his personal journals and papers. I highly recommend this fascinating book and enjoyed my look into the life and times of one of America's greatest rocket scientist.

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