James van Allen has died

Contributed by
Aug 9, 2006

I'm very sad about this: James van Allen, a pioneer in space science, has died.

If his name sounds familiar, it's because he discovered the doughnut-shaped regions of intense radiation surrounding the Earth (caused by the capture of solar particles in the Earth's magnetic field). They're named the van Allen belts in his honor.

(L-R) William Pickering, James Van Allen, and Wernher von Braun hold up a full-size model of Explorer 1 back in 1958.

van Allen was at the University of Iowa for a long, long time. I was fortunate enough to talk to him a few years back. I called him on the phone because I wanted his opinion on Moon hoax believers using the van Allen belts as "proof" that Apollo was faked. This was in the summer of 2000, and he was 85 years old, yet he was chipper, sharp, and funny. We joked for a while about it, and he was very generous with his time. He made quite an impression on me-- he worked on the very first American satellite, Explorer 1, which discovered that radiation, and has gone on to a distinguished career in high-energy space science, yet he took a half hour of his life to explain to me what happened back then in the beginning of the space program, how NASA used the knowledge gained from his experiments to make sure the astronauts were safe from radiation, and what's been learned of the belts since then.

He was a giant, a giant, among scientists.

More information about his incredible career is at spaceref.com.

Make Your Inbox Important

Like Comic-Con. Except every week in your inbox.

Sign-up breaker
Sign out: