James Van Allen

James Van Allen

The First Eight Billion Miles

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376 pages, 52 photos, 6 x 9 inches
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"For her compelling and informative biography, Abigail 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 University of Iowa graduate students and their efforts to create satellite instruments, and key events in his personal life. . . . I highly recommend this fascinating book."—Robert Garfinkle, Sky & Telescope

"The biography is crammed with very literate expositions of the dramatic years following World War II, years of epochal events: scientific, technological, political, and academic. James Van Allen was a superb figure upon which to trace this important era in the history of the nation."—Leon M. Lederman, Nobel Laureate, Physics

“A distinct contribution, long overdue, this most satisfying biography sets the subject within the context of his time, place, and profession. It not only illuminates the early history of space science but addresses the larger history of the scientific enterprise and even American history. The scientific basics and the open questions and controversies with which Van Allen was involved are well articulated, and the contextual look at the birth of space science will be useful to scientists.”—Tom Crouch, senior curator, Aeronautics, National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution

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.

Table of contents: 

Preface and Acknowledgments, ix
Introduction, xv
Abbreviations and Acronyms, xix
1 Frontier Roots, 1
2 Heartland Boyhood, 16
3 The Making of a Scientist, 35
4 Physicists to the War Effort, 50
5 Enter Abigail Fithian Halsey, 67
6 The Dawn of Space Exploration, 75
7 The Mighty Little Aerobee, 93
8 It’s a Rocket! It’s a Balloon! It’s a Rockoon!, 106
9 Sputnik and the Space Race, 122
10 Countdown to Explorer I, 142
11 Celebrity Scientist and the Birth of NASA, 161
12 Discovery of the Radiation Belts, 175
13 Space Shield for the Cold War, 187
14 Space as a Cottage Industry, 200
15 The Mariners, 213
16 Pioneers to the Outer Planets, 229
17 Space Politics, 248
18 Journey to the Edge of the Solar System, 265
Notes, 277
Selected Bibliography, 295
Index, 301