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James Van Allen
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Scientist
    (September 7, 1914-August 9, 2006)
    Born in Mount Pleasant, Iowa
    Physicist and space scientist
    Head of the physics department at the University of Iowa (1951-85)
    Consultant for 24 satellites and planetary missions
    Discoverer of and namesake for the Van Allen radiation belts
    Received the National Medal of Science (1987)
    He was recommended for the US Naval Academy but failed the physical.
    Despite his later importance in the space program, he took only one undergraduate class in astronomy.
    He developed 'rockoons' (rockets that were lifted to the upper atmosphere by balloon before being ignited) but was not allowed to fire them in the US because of fears of possible damage caused by the spent rockets falling to earth. (He ended up launching them at sea from Coast Guard ships.)
    He chaired a panel of scientists that recommended landing a man on the moon by the end of the 60s, but later became a leading opponent of further manned space exploration.
    He was valedictorian of his high school.
    As a college student, he assembled research instruments for Admiral Richard E. Byrd's Antarctic expeditions.
    During World War II, he served with the US Navy in the South Pacific, overseeing the use of proximity fuses, which he had helped develop just before the war.
    He was married to Abigail Halsey for 60 years until his death.
    The International Geophysical Year (1957-58) grew out of a meeting of scientists held at his house.
    He said his favorite activity was teaching the beginning astronomy class at Iowa.
    He said, 'I believe in scientific inquiry for its own sake. I think the history of science gives ample examples that pure investigation has enormous benefit. ... I can't tell you what this might be good for, but learning about nature is important. And lovely things turn up.'

Credit: C. Fishel


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