Our Iowa Heritage: Iowa’s Own Rocket Man – Dr. James Van Allen.

Dr. James Van Allen – May 4, 1959

Mt. Pleasant, Iowa – Home of Dr. James Van Allen. Being from Mt. Pleasant myself, I find it fascinating that our little hometown in southeast Iowa is famous for two very contrasting themes . . . yet both of which were cutting-edge technologies in their hey-day:

1. Farm threshing engines from the late-1800’s. Mt. Pleasant is the home of the annual Midwest Old Settlers & Threshers Reunion – the largest gathering of threshing machines in America – a technology that brought farming into the 20th century via steam-powered engines. Read more here.
2. Rocket science from the late-1950’s. Mt. Pleasant is the home of Dr. James Van Allen, who is often called the Father of Space Science, who along with William Pickering (left) and Wernher von Braun (right) brought America into the 21st century via rocket-powered space exploration. In the picture above, Van Allen (middle) was instrumental in getting America’s first space-exploration satellite into orbit – Explorer I – launched on January 31,1958.

Dr. James Alfred Van Allen (1914-2006) was born September 7, 1914 in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, one of four children of James Alfred and Alma Olney Van Allen. His father, a lawyer, instilled a love for tinkering with machinery combined with a belief in hard-work – two solid qualities which Van Allen later credited for helping him graduate at the top of his high school class. His favorite magazines growing up were Popular Mechanics and Popular Science.

Dreaming of going out to sea after graduation, reality hit James hard however, when he failed his physical exam for the U.S. Naval Academy. The reasons – 1) flat feet, 2) poor eyesight, and 3) Jim didn’t know how to swim!

So, James came back to Mt. Pleasant, attending Iowa Wesleyan College, where he was recruited to work on the seismic and magnetic equipment for Admiral Richard Byrd’s 1934 expedition to Antarctica. The professor that Van Allen worked with on that project, Dr. Thomas Poulter (above far right), was second-in-command for Richard Byrd’s expedition and issued an invitation to Van Allen to join them. Since he was only 18 years old at the time, Van Allen’s parents, sadly, would not let him go.

In 1935, after graduating summa cum laude from Iowa Wesleyan College with a degree in physics, Van Allen went on to get his Masters (1936) and Doctorate in Physics (1939) from the State University of Iowa. From 1939 to 1942, he worked as a research fellow at the Carnegie Institute in Washington, D.C., and during that time, he also worked at the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University. World War II was in full force and in November of 1942, Van Allen was finally accepted into the U.S. Navy, serving on a succession of South Pacific fleet destroyers, instructing gunnery officers and conducting tests on his artillery fuses. He was an assistant staff gunnery officer on the battleship USS Washington when the ship successfully defended itself against a Japanese kamikaze attack during the Battle of the Philippine Sea, (June 1944). For his actions in the Pacific, Van Allen was awarded four battle stars and promoted to lieutenant commander. “My service as a naval officer was, far and away, the most broadening experience of my lifetime,” he wrote in a 1990 autobiographical essay.

After his service in the war, Van Allen returned back east, spending a few years supervising high-altitude research. It was during this season when James accidentally met his wife-to-be, Abigail Fithian Halsey, an English literature and language major at Mount Holyoke in South Hadley, Mass. One day, as Van Allen was driving to a meeting, Abigail, “met” James when she backed into his car at a stoplight. He scowled, but said nothing.

Just a few minutes later, at the applied physics lab of Johns Hopkins University where they both worked, Abigail said, ‘Who do you think you are, throwing those dirty looks?”

He called her the following Sunday to go bicycling!

The Van Allens married on October 13, 1945, in Southampton, Long Island, living right outside Washington, D.C., until 1951, when James accepted the job of overseeing the State University of Iowa Physics and Astronomy Department.

The International Geophysical Year (IGY) – July 1, 1957 through December 31, 1958.

While still living in Silver Springs, Maryland (April 1950), the Van Allens hosted a simple dinner party in their home. Many believe it was this gathering that actually started the U.S./U.S.S.R Space Race of the 1950’s and ’60’s. TIME Magazine (1959) reports on this little dinner party at the Van Allen’s this way…

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 DC 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,’ (Van Allen) 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.

The International Council of Scientific Unions set July 1, 1957, through Dec. 31, 1958, as the International Geophysical Year (IGY), and in preparation for the 18-month event, Van Allen and the others soon began tests, developing instruments for experiments, and inviting other scientists from around the country to propose projects.

In 1951, when Van Allen joined the faculty at SUI as Department Head of Physics and Astronomy, he continued his IGY ideas, working with his graduate students to develop what they called a “rockoon” – a combination rocket and balloon that hoisted a special nose cone, containing cosmic ray testing equipment developed by Van Allen, to a much higher elevation than ever reached before.

In October 1952, Van Allen, along with graduate student Leslie Meredith and SUI electronics technician Lee Blodgett set sail on the Coast Guard icebreaker Eastwind to Baffin Bay, west of northern Greenland. Balloons ten stories tall and ranging from 55 feet to 100 feet in diameter were launched at the speed of the wind from the Eastwind’s 60-foot-square deck and ascended above earth’s atmosphere. These tests set the stage for what came next…

Sputnik 1 launched in October 1957 led to Explorer I being launched in January 1958 – (C-0275)

By 1956, as a member of the eight-scientist technical panel on the earth satellite program of the National Academy of Science, Van Allen was named chairman of a group in charge of instrumentation in the proposed satellites, dubbed ‘baby moons.” Following the Soviet launch of Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957, the IGY program quickly switched rocket boosters to the already-tested Army Jupiter-C rocket, built under the direction of Dr. Wernher Von Braun, to accelerate a satellite launch, now called the Explorer program. The space race was now, officially, on.

On January 31, 1958, Explorer I, weighing 30.8 pounds, began its elliptical orbit around the earth. It was a slender tube, 6 1/2 feet long, orbiting at 18,000 mph every 106 minutes at a distance varying from 230 miles to 2,000 miles above the earth.

By July, there were three “baby moons” in orbit. Explorer IV, the heaviest and most vital of the three, looped through its orbit every 110 minutes, giving out loud and clear signals on an intense field of radiation 600 miles above the earth’s surface. You see, on board all three Explorers was a special Geiger Counter Van Allen and his team had designed to test for the radiation as it orbited the earth. In truth, most of the instruments broadcasting from the Explorer program were designed and built at SUI since Iowa was the only institution in the country to take part in the Army’s Jupiter-C project.

In his November 1959 IGY report, Van Allen confirmed that the “doughnut-shaped radiation belt around the earth” discovered earlier by Explorers I and III was confirmed by Explorer IV. “It appears likely,” Dr. Van Allen said, “that many important geophysical phenomena, including the Northern Lights, are intimately related to the reservoir of charged particles found to be trapped in the outer reaches of the earth’s magnetic field.”

Soon, scientists across the globe were hailing Van Allen and his team for this break-thru discovery, calling these belts the Van Allen Radiation Belts. And because the Explorer mission fortified the United States’ efforts to conquer space, Van Allen and his fellow scientists were soon heralded across the country. Ed Stone, former director of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, explained the importance of Van Allen’s work on the Explorer flights to John Johnson Jr. of the Los Angeles Times

Van Allen’s discovery…was the first major scientific discovery of the Space Age….[It] was unexpected, and that’s what made it so exciting.

Along with his University of Iowa colleagues, Van Allen ended up sending instruments to the Moon, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, as well as throughout interplanetary space. Dr. Van Allen served as a principal investigator on more than 25 other space science missions, including Pioneer 10 and 11, Galileo, and Voyagers 1 and 2; authoring nearly 200 papers, all the while directing the dissertations of many PhD. graduate students in space physics. 

Yet, as the U.S. space program moved more toward manned space exploration, Van Allen was not afraid to voice his dissent. He opposed sending people into space because he felt the jobs could be just as easily accomplished by robots. The Los Angeles Times reported that Van Allen once said, “Man is a fabulous nuisance in space. He’s not worth all the costs of putting him up there and keeping him comfortable.”

Apparently, Van Allen wasn’t even convinced that dogs should go up into space. Sputnik 2, the second Russian satellite (1957) carried Laika the dog as its lone passenger. But sadly, the canine survived only a few hours when the satellite’s bio-metric system failed. In a newspaper article written years later, Van Allen said he learned early-on not to talk about sending animals into space around his children. “When (James) jokingly offered the family dog, Domino, an 8-year-old Cocker Spaniel, for outer space travel,” Abigail Van Allen responded, “Our children have been threatening him ever since. It looks like Domino is safe!”

1961 Iowa Award Winner – Dr. James Van Allen – educator, physicist, rocket space exploration.

During his lifetime, Dr. Van Allen received many prestigious awards including being honored on the cover of TIME magazine in May of 1959, and as part of a team of scientists who were chosen as TIME’s Person of the Year in 1960. In 1987, President Reagan presented Van Allen with the National Medal of Science, the nation’s highest honor for scientific achievement. Dr. Van Allen retired from The University of Iowa in 1985, but continued to live in Iowa City and served as the Carver Professor of Physics, Emeritus almost until the day he passed away.

In May of 1989 – The Iowa City Press Citizen ran a big series of articles celebrating Iowa City’s 150th birthday (1839-1989). On page 54 was this entertaining article on Dr. Van Allen. Click here to read more.

Dr. Van Allen (above) on 1) retirement, 2) having a building named after him, 3) his love of Iowa City.

Dr. Van Allen (above) on how he has responded to the fame he’s acquired over the years.

A very special honor occurred in August 2005, when Dr. Van Allen, along with his wife Abigail, were special guests at the grand opening of Van Allen Elementary School in Iowa City – a source of great pride for the entire Van Allen family.

Married to Abigail Fithian Halsey for 61 years, the Van Allens had five children: Cynthia, Margot, Sarah, Thomas, and Peter. Dr. James Van Allen died of heart failure at the age of 91 on August 9, 2006, at the University of Iowa Hospital in Iowa City. He was survived by his wife, children, and seven grandchildren. Professor Van Allen (1914-2006) and Abigail (1922-2008) are buried in Southampton, New York, where Mrs. Van Allen was born and the couple were married.

Van Allen Hall, located on The University of Iowa campus, continues to house physics and astronomy faculty from which James Van Allen retired in 1985, but continued to work here right up until the time of his death in 2006. Van Allen pushed hard in the early 1960’s to get this building built and in 1981, it was named after him. The space-age research finds expression in the architecture of the building, plus an observatory is located on the roof. Click here to read about the history of SUI Observatories.
Watch this 4:45 video of an interview of Dr. Van Allen in the late 1950’s. Van Allen was always pro-active in promoting education and highly valued his role as a teacher.

I’ve never thought of myself as particularly brilliant. I’ve run across so many people in my life that can run circles around me in sheer brilliance and understanding, but I don’t run across many that have the same quality of persistence and perseverance that I do. When I am really onto something, I am going to still be on it ten years later if that is what it takes to get the answer. It’s the kind of thing that keeps driving me onward is that there is always something you should know if you really want to get the whole picture.Dr. James Van Allen

As proof of Dr. Van Allen’s ability in the classroom as well as out, in 1974, People Magazine named him one of the top 10 college professors. In 1985, he retired from classroom teaching and stepped down from his position as head of the UI Physics Department, but could still be found on campus daily. He researched, wrote, and published up until the end of his life. His dedication to and excitement about his life’s work is exemplified by a quote of his as reported by Patricia Sullivan of the Washington Post when asked why he still spends so much of his time conducting experiments in nature…

I believe in scientific inquiry for its own sake…I can’t tell you what this might be good for, but learning about nature is important. And lovely things turn up.

Without a doubt, lovely things did turn up as Dr. Van Allen and Abigail walked through this life together. Godspeed.


Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

Van Allen Elementary School, Iowa City Community Schools

James Van Allen Biography, Encyclopedia of World Biography

James Van Allen, Wikipedia

1960 TIME Magazine – Person of the Year – U.S. Scientists, Time, Inc

Time Machine: Dr. James Van Allen, Cedar Rapids Gazette, November 2, 2014

James Van Allen was known for his belts, Jeff Glorfeld, Cosmos Magazine, December 11, 2020

Pioneering Astrophysicist James Van Allen Dies, NASA, August 8, 2006

Our One Hundred Fiftieth Anniversary, Iowa City Press Citizen, May 4, 1989, p 54

James Alfred Van Allen, Find-A-Grave

Abigail Fithian Halsey Van Allen, Find-A-Grave

Van Allen Hall, University of Iowa Campus

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