Reach into Space


Time Magazine, May 4, 1959

At 6:45 a.m. as usual, three-year-old Tommy, with whoops and cries of good fellowship, climbed into the bed and began to jump up and down on his father's waking form. "I like to get up early anyway," said Dr. James Alfred Van Allen philosophically, and got up. By 8:30 Dr. Van Allen, a sturdy (5 ft. 8 in., 175 Ibs.) figure in a sober grey suit, was climbing the steps of the limestone building that houses the physics department of the State University of Iowa in Iowa City. The janitor waved casually, called "Hi, Van." The U.S.'s foremost space scientist waved back and went on to his office and its clutter of models—rockets, satellites, nose cones and other esoteric objects. "I'm here now; you can start paying me," he grinned at his secretary, Agnes Costello, and disappeared into his inner office to prepare for his regular 10:30 lecture.

On his way, he glanced with brief distaste at a specially installed Teletype; at any moment it might clatter out an urgent message—from the Pentagon, summoning him to a conference in Washington; from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, asking his views on the instrumentation of a new moon shoot. But this morning he was not molested; he emerged two hours later, notes in hand, and headed for his classroom. For 50 minutes Van Allen lectured to Iowa undergraduates on the theory of transformers, then quipped: "All this is very good in theory, but in practice, you take a piece of iron, wind a wire around it, then plug the wire in. The core gets hot, the wires smoke, and the fuse blows. So you see, there are practical limitations to theory."

Tapes & Pink Soap. First chance that offered, Van Allen ducked down to the basement. There, in an area that was originally used for storage, is the most famed space-instrument laboratory in the U.S. The walls have turned a dingy yellow; the ceilings and walls are laced with pipes and conduits. In one room were stacks upon stacks of tape recordings of satellite data, neatly sorted according to tracking station—Singapore, Ibadan, Lima, Heidelberg. In another, students pored over the squiggly lines that are man's first clues to the geography of outer space. Other students tested electrical components no bigger than grains of rice, soldering them together with hair-thin wires, and carefully fitting them into assemblies.

In a cluttered room that was once a hallway, Van Allen checked over a tangle of small, glittering electrical parts weighing a pound or so, which might be a transmitter designed to broadcast its voice over thousands of miles of empty space. Near it was what looked like a cylinder of dirty pink soap. It was plastic foam, encasing apparatus that might be destined to orbit the sun until the end of the solar system. Puffing on a battered pipe, Van Allen peered, commented, sketched an idea for a new circuit, then was summoned to take a long-distance call from the Army's rocket lab in Huntsville, Ala. So the day began.

Majestic Feature. In the race into space, the Russians can claim bigger satellites and more powerful rockets. If the U.S. can retort that it has a big lead in scientific achievement, the man most responsible is James Van Allen, whose instruments, designed and largely constructed in his basement laboratory, brought back from space discoveries the Russians never made.

But Van Allen never expected to find himself, at 44, a key figure in the cold war's competition for prestige. He is and always has been, by inclination and intent, a "pure" scientist. His real interest is in cosmic rays. He started being curious about cosmic rays back in the prewar days when they were considered as wildly abstruse and impractical as a study of the mating habits of sea horses or the inner structure of a grasshopper's brain. But today he can tip back his head and look at the sky. Beyond its outermost blue are the world-encompassing belts of fierce radiation that bear his name. No human name has ever been given to a more majestic feature of the planet Earth.

Life with Father. While tops in a science that is thick with foreign accents, Jim Van Allen is about as American as a man can be. Born in 1914 at Mount Pleasant, a county-seat town in southeastern Iowa, he was the second son of a successful lawyer. Alfred Van Allen, whose Dutch ancestors came to the U.S. soon after the Revolution. His mother was raised on an Iowa farm.

Father Alfred did not believe in play or leisure. He thought that everyone should be doing something useful every waking hour. Jim was sent to school when he was four years old. When not at school, he and his three brothers were set to chopping wood and household chores.

Mealtime conversation was expected to be serious. On winter evenings, Father often read to the family from The Book of Knowledge. The boys were sometimes allowed to play baseball or football in their own yard, but their father banned their participation in school athletics—"Circus games," snorted Father. After the boys suffered a long series of illnesses, Father took steps. Winter or summer, the windows of the family car were always kept shut to exclude drafts.

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Jim was smaller than most boys of his age, and his early sicknesses made him weak and shy. Unable to compete in any physical way, he threw himself into school-work with burning enthusiasm, getting top marks in all his subjects. Not eager to let him get too far away, his parents sent him to Iowa Wesleyan, a small college right in Mount Pleasant. There he quickly attracted the attention of Professor Thomas Poulter, a first-class physicist.

Working eagerly with Professor Poulter, Jim tracked meteors, made a magnetic survey of Mount Pleasant, and measured cosmic rays at ground level. He moved on to the State University of Iowa in nearby Iowa City, to do post-graduate work in nuclear physics. In 1939 he got a job with the Carnegie Institution of Washington.

Radio for Cannon. For a while, he did basic physical research on terrestrial magnetism, which influences cosmic rays. But World War II had begun, and weapons came first. Van Allen was put to work on the development of proximity fuses, which called for something almost inconceivable in 1940: a radio transmitter-receiver that could stand being fired out of a cannon in the nose of a shell. At the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Silver Spring, Md., just outside Washington, Van Allen was a junior scientist in the proximity fuse business, but it made him an expert on how to pack complex circuitry into a small space and make it rugged enough to survive abuse. Working closely with the Navy, Van Allen was commissioned as a Lieutenant, j.g., made two trips to the Pacific to instruct gunnery officers in the use of proximity fuses.

Dirty Looks. Back at Silver Spring he was driving to work one morning when he stopped at a traffic light behind a young woman driver. The light turned green; her car went unexpectedly into reverse. Bumpers met with a small crash. Jim, a non-combative man, pulled around the flustered girl and gave her a slightly disdainful look. A few minutes later, walking into the laboratory, he met the same girl.

"Who do you think you are?" she demanded. "Giving me dirty looks!"

Jim blushed and retreated without a word, but he soon found out that her name was Abigail Fithian Halsey II. She worked as a mathematician at the laboratory, lived in Bethesda with four Navy WAVEs, and would be delighted to go bicycling with him.

"When he came to see me," Abbie Van Allen says now, "he dreaded having to talk to my roommates while he waited for me. He'd walk in, look wildly around for a magazine, and bury his face in it just to avoid making small talk. When we finally decided to get married, the girls thought I was crazy. They asked: 'How can you marry a guy like that?' "

White Sands. Jim and Abbie were married in the fall of 1945 and settled down in suburban Silver Spring. With war's end, Van Allen had no further interest in fuses or weapons. He wanted to get back to studying cosmic rays. He learned that the U.S. Army had captured nearly 100 German V-2s and was planning to fire them at White Sands Proving Ground, N. Mex., with sand instead of explosives in their warheads. Van Allen, along with several other scientists, was offered the privilege of substituting instruments for the sand.

Until then, cosmic rays had been measured only to 80,000 ft. by balloon. The V-2s carried cosmic-ray instruments up 100 miles, measuring cosmic rays and making Van Allen, incidentally, an authority on instrumentation of rockets. They also brought him into close contact with nearly all of the pioneer U.S. rocketmen, especially William Pickering, soon to head the Army's Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Pasadena.

By this time, the sky scientist from Iowa had taken on a deceptive skill in threading his way through Washington's bureaucratic jungles. When the supply of captured V-2s was about to run out, Van Allen proposed and drew specifications for a cheaper rocket—the Aerobee—and headed the committee that talked the Government into getting it produced. Next, he got the Navy to provide him a ship from which he shot Aerobees at cosmic rays from the Magnetic Equator off Peru to the Gulf of Alaska.

Pedigreed Bull. In 1950 came an event 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, remarked that he would like to meet other scientists in the Washington area. Van Allen got on the phone, soon gathered eight or ten top scientists in the living room of his small brick house. "It was what you might call a pedigreed bull session," he 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.

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 may be said to have started in Van Allen's living room that evening in 1950.

Almost simultaneously, the Applied Physics Laboratory tried to assign Van Allen to something more practical than cosmic rays—such as heading a program to develop a better proximity fuse. Van Allen was not interested. The State University of Iowa offered him a job as head of the physics department. He accepted.

– 3 –

Balloons over the Stadium. Back in Iowa with his wife and two young children, Van Allen was also back on a slim academic budget. With a tiny ($4,000) grant from the Research Corporation, he set students to launching cheap plastic balloons from the running track in the stadium. After V-2s and Aerobees, it was a sad comedown.

Then he remembered a remark made by Lieut. Commander Lee Lewis during an Aerobee firing off the coast of Peru. "Wouldn't it be easier," Lewis had asked, "to lift a rocket on a balloon above most of the atmosphere, and then fire it?" No one had ever tried it, but after a little figuring, Van Allen decided that the trick should work. He wangled small, cheap rockets through his friend Pickering at the Jet Propulsion Lab; a balloon-rocket combination to carry an 8-lb. payload of instruments 75 miles up was put together for a mere $750.

Van Allen's "Rockoons" could not be fired in Iowa for fear that the spent rockets would spike an lowan or his house. Turning his oldtime mesmerism on official Washington, Van Allen found that it still had not lost its effectiveness. The Coast Guard agreed to put him and his Rockoons aboard the icebreaker Eastwind bound for Greenland, where cosmic rays are deflected toward the Magnetic Pole by the earth's magnetic field.

Orange-Juice Victory. The first balloon rose properly to 70,000 ft., but the rocket hanging under it did not fire. The second Rockoon behaved in the same maddening way. On the theory that extreme cold at high altitude might have stopped the clockwork supposed to ignite the rockets, Van Allen heated cans of orange juice, snuggled them into the third Rockoon's gondola, and wrapped the whole business in insulation. The rocket fired.

In 1953, Van Allen was temporarily diverted from Rockoons to a project at Princeton University to develop thermonuclear power. But his Iowa graduate students carried on the Rockoon firings off the coast of Newfoundland. One day the students put in an excited call to Van Allen in Princeton. The cosmic rays near Newfoundland, the students reported, seemed to rise to incredibly high intensity above 30 miles.

Obviously, concluded Van Allen, "there was something wild and woolly going on." The aurora borealis is most intense at latitudes north of Newfoundland. It was believed to be caused by charged particles of some sort raining down from space and concentrated around the Magnetic North Pole by the earth's magnetic field. Though Van Allen could not guess it then, the "cosmic rays" detected by his Rockoons were directly related to the northern lights, and were really a fringe of the worldwide radiation belt that he was to discover five years later.

Satellites Next. Rockoons had carried him as high as they could go. Van Allen began to take an interest in satellites. Since his White Sands days, he had kept an eye on U.S. rocketry. His association with the Navy had been long and pleasant, but he became an outspoken advocate of the Army's Jupiter-C, whose high-speed stages had been designed by Pickering's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "I made rather a pest of myself around Washington about Jupiter." he admits. But the Pentagon shunted Jupiter aside in favor of the Navy's Vanguard.

Despite his candid partisanship, Van Allen's status as the best instrumentator of space was so indisputable by this time that he found himself commissioned to provide Vanguard's instrumentation. He dutifully set to work. But he took the precaution of finding out just what the Army had planned for its banned Explorer I satellite. The Army informed him that it had in mind a cylinder 6 in. in diameter. By no coincidence at all, the instrument package Van Allen produced for the 21-in. Vanguard sphere proved to be cylindrical, and just 5½ in. in diameter.

Actual production was in the hands of husky young (31) George Ludwig, a graduate student who has proved himself a mechanical genius in the painstaking new art of space instrumentation. Each ounce counts, because it costs many thousands of dollars to put each ounce into orbit. The tiny, buglike components must stand enormous g forces, vibration and spin, survive violent changes of temperature.

Ludwig sets up a rough, breadboard model of the circuitry with real transistors, resistors and other components. When the circuits check out, the components are mounted on plastic disks. A typical package may contain several hundred diodes, transistors and resistors. All open space among the spidery components is usually filled with foamed plastic. Then the whole apparatus is dropped, shaken, bounced, heated and cooled.

First Beep. With this work well underway and no satellite launching expected for some time, Van Allen was not a man to sit around idly. He got aboard the Navy icebreaker Glacier and headed for Antarctica to measure cosmic rays near the South Magnetic Pole. On Oct. 4, when the Glacier was wallowing southward across the Pacific, a report that the Russians had launched a satellite came over the ship's radio. Van Allen went to work on the Glacier's 20-mc. receiver, and within half an hour it yielded vigorous beeping sounds. That was Sputnik I. The Russians had won the first heat in the race into space.

The free world was crying for U.S. satellite action. But the Vanguard program still sputtered and faltered. Suddenly, Van Allen got a radio message from Pickering. The Army had at last got permission to try its satellite. He asked if Van Allen would approve transfer of his instruments to Jupiter-C.

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Van Allen instantly cabled his approval, wired Ludwig to pack up all his apparatus and rush it to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Pasadena. Then he flew back from New Zealand. In Pasadena, he and Pickering decided that the payload—basically a Geiger counter to detect cosmic rays in space and two incredibly light but powerful radio transmitters—would have to be modified in one respect. It contained a miniature tape recorder to record the cosmic-ray data during a trip around the earth and then transmit it quickly when triggered by a coded signal sent up from the ground. Designed for Vanguard, this elegant apparatus would not work in Explorer I, which would spin too fast. So it was removed, requiring Explorer I to broadcast continuously.

Mysterious Silence. On Jan. 31, 1958, a Jupiter-C, fired from Cape Canaveral, put Explorer I into a fine orbit. With two massive Sputniks to compete with, the U.S. pinned its hopes for outdoing the Russians on the superiority of Van Allen's instruments.

Van Allen waited in Iowa City. In a few days, long, wide paper tapes with wiggly red pen lines began to arrive from monitoring stations in the U.S. The cosmic-ray count that they showed was not unusual. But after two or three weeks, tapes began to dribble in from stations in South America. "As soon as we started looking at them, we saw the most remarkable situation." Over the U.S., where the satellite swooped low, the rate was about 40 counts a second. But over the equatorial region, where the satellite was rising to its highest point, the counting rates were much smaller. During some two-minute stretches there were no counts at all. Says Van Allen: "My first thought was, 'Great guns! Something's gone wrong with the apparatus!' But then we got later North American tapes and everything seemed normal again."

All sorts of suggestions were made to explain the Explorer's peculiar behavior over the equatorial region. Perhaps a weird magnetic field was shunting all cosmic rays away from the equator. Maybe the alternation of sunlight and shade was affecting the Geiger counter. No explanation really worked.

Explorer II splashed into the Atlantic early in March, but Explorer III was launched successfully on March 26. It contained a modified version of Ludwig's tape recorder—an amazing little instrument full of tiny, glittering parts that weighed only 8 oz. If it worked, it would gush out in five seconds all the cosmic-ray data from an entire orbit.

On March 28 Van Allen got the first tape and sat up all night poring over it. The cosmic-ray count seemed reasonable as long as the bird was at low altitude. When it climbed upward, the rate increased rapidly. Then, for some unaccountable reason, the count fell to nothing, stayed at nothing until the bird was back at lower altitude again.

Sulking Tube. Mystified, Van Allen hurried back to Iowa, where his assistants, Drs. Carl McIlwain and Ernest Ray, were puzzling over a copy of the same tape. The three almost simultaneously hit a solution. The high-flying Geiger tube was being swamped by too heavy a dose of some kind of radiation. This is a weakness of Geiger tubes. If required to count too many times a second, they sulk and do not count at all.

The amazing conclusion: the earth was surrounded by a belt of intense radiation, apparently trapped by earth's magnetic field. It might be deadly enough to interfere seriously with man's attempts to fly out into space.

The announcement caused an embarrassed flurry in high Washington circles. Van Allen learned that, at the suggestion of Physicist Nicholas Christofilos of Livermore Laboratory, the Department of Defense was planning to launch Project Argus, in which three atom bombs would be rocketed above the atmosphere and exploded (TIME, March 30). The high-speed electrons released were expected to be shunted around the earth by the earth's magnetic field. Van Allen's discovery that nature had already provided such electrons was a considerable shock.

With his fine-honed skill in maneuvering, Van Allen took advantage of Project Argus to advance his own studies. He proposed the launching of a new satellite in a more north-and-south orbit than any of its predecessors. Moving in this way, he explained, it would better observe the results of Project Argus. Incidentally, it would also give him coverage of the natural radiation belt in latitudes that earlier satellites had not reached.

Explorer IV went into a 51° orbit on July 26. It carried sophisticated instruments that Van Allen's laboratory had provided to distinguish between "hard" and "soft" radiation, and shielded Geiger counters designed to count radiation intensity at extremely high levels without blacking out. On Aug. 27 the first Argus shot sent man-made electrons zigzagging round the earth. The satellite cut through them back and forth, making about 250 passes before its batteries were exhausted on Sept. 20.

Behind the Northern Lights. When Van Allen made his first open report on Explorer IV, he had to avoid all mention of Argus because of military security. But he had plenty to tell about the natural radiation. He could say with assurance that a human satellite crew exposed to maximum Van Allen radiation for a few days would surely die. It looked as if the fierce particles, which slam close to the earth in the auroral regions, were the explanation of the ancient mystery of the northern lights.

– 5 –

None of the Russians' three massive Sputniks had reported the Van Allen radiation. One theory is that the Russians outsmarted themselves by refusing to tell the outside world how to interpret signals from their satellites. Since only the low parts of the Sputnik orbits were over Soviet territory, Russian scientists never got reports from high altitudes. If any of the Sputniks carried tape recorders, they apparently did not work.

Another theory is that the Sputniks' Geiger tubes were blacked out near apogee by Van Allen radiation, and that the Russian scientists did not know how to interpret this odd behavior. The live dog carried in Sputnik II died in about a week, but the Russians have not told whether it was affected by radiation sickness. Very likely they do not know.

The Slot. Van Allen still knew only the lower parts of the overhead radiation. He yearned to go higher still. He began negotiating to get his instruments into the projected moon probes. When in the fall of 1958 Pioneer I rose to 71,000 miles and fell back, Van Allen had his instruments aboard. But for once, they did not work well. Pioneer II flopped, but in December Pioneer III carried his instruments up to 63,000 miles, broadcasting all the way.

From Pioneer III, Van Allen discovered that there are not one but two radiation belts, with a low-intensity slot between them. Studying the tapes, he concluded that the outer belt is made of weaker particles, presumably protons and electrons that come from the sun. At its outer edges, it curves downward in "horns" that hit the atmosphere near the magnetic poles. These horns were what produced the northern lights.

Van Allen's conclusions were confirmed when Pioneer IV soared past the moon and into orbit around the sun. Its tiny, 1-lb. radio transmitter, which was followed by Jet Propulsion Laboratory's receiving stations for 400,000 miles, reported that the outer radiation belt does not die off evenly. Beyond it are irregular bursts of radiation that may be clouds of electrons and protons arriving fresh from the sun. Such invisible clouds in space may prove serious hazards for future deep-space voyagers.

Van Allen summed up his conclusions: "Apparently, something happens on the sun. It sends out a burst of gases. The reservoirs above our earth shake like a bowl of jelly. The radiation droozles out at the ends and makes the auroral displays at the North and South Poles."

Hole in Space. Widely popular in a profession full of jealousies, Van Allen has a cheerful scorn for his new-found importance. Recently, he told a solemn gathering of scientists, he had been asked for a definition of space. "After a vast research program, which depended very heavily upon the use of a number of high speed computers, I am pleased to offer you the result: 'Space is that in which everything else is.' In other words, 'Space is the hole that we are in.' "

During recurring times of crisis, he may reduce his lunch to an apple or skip it altogether, but he still finds time to fly kites with his four children ("a little high-altitude research," he calls it), likes to work in his basement workshop. His most recent achievement: a model covered wagon, big enough to hold his nine-year-old daughter and friends. For the brilliant assistants and students who have gathered around him, he has full appreciation. "I am a sort of scoutmaster around here," he says mildly.

Among Van Allen's immediate interests is a 20-lb. satellite scheduled for launching next fall. If all goes well, it will settle into a slim, elliptical orbit, soaring out six earth radii (24.000 miles) at apogee. It should stay up for hundreds of years, and it will have solar batteries to keep its radio voices alive for a long time. Its duty will be to report continuously on the radiation belt, study how it is affected by sunspots and other solar eruptions. Its fluctuations may have important effects on the earth's weather.

Next: Venus. Like most other scientists, Van Allen is in no hurry to put a man into space. "A man is a fabulous nuisance in space right now," he says. "He's not worth all the cost of putting him up there and keeping him comfortable and working." Instruments are lighter, tougher and less demanding, are sensitive to many things that human senses ignore. They already have memories (tape recorders), and they can carry computers that will permit them to make judgments. An instrument-manned Venus probe should be able to make observations and adjust its course by firing small rockets when it nears its goal. Perhaps it will round Venus and then put itself into a back-to-earth trajectory.

Such a vehicle would have important military connotations. But James Van Allen, a pure scientist turned spaceman, sees such projects in simpler terms. Says he: "The satellite is a natural extension of rockets, which are natural extensions of planes and balloons, which are natural extensions of man's climbing trees and mountains in order to get up higher and thus have a better view."


Time Magazine, May 4, 1959


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