Friday, August 11, 2006

James van Allen has died

From the mischievous and enjoyable Bob Park, with whom I find I frequently disagree, I learn the sad news:

Almost nothing was known about conditions beyond the ionosphere when the US launched Explorer I on 31 Jan 58. The Cold War was at its peak, and the Soviets seemed to own space. Sputnik I, launched 4 Oct 57, carried no instruments. Sputnik II, a month later, could only send back Geiger counter readings taken when it was in sight of the ground station. In June, however, at a conference in the USSR, James Van Allen, a physics professor at the University of Iowa, announced that Explorer I had discovered the first of the two "Van Allen radiation belts." Soviet space scientists were crushed; the "space age" was not a year old and already the U.S. had taken the lead in science. Two years ago I visited Prof Van Allen in his office at the U. Iowa. At 89 he was down to a 7-day work week. He showed me an op-ed he was sending to the NY Times in which he described human space flight as "obsolete". I don't believe they used it. Van Allen said using people to explore space is "a terribly old fashioned idea."

I am of the generation that was so excited with what we were learning from satellites about space. With Parks, I cannot figure why we shoot people up there today; it was neat having some of the species on the moon in 1969, but it is hard to know what value we have got out of it other than the lift that experience provided.


Post a Comment

<< Home