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NOTE TO EDITORS: Reporters and photographers are invited to attend a reception honoring Dr. James A. Van Allen and the 40th Anniversary of his discovery of the Van Allen radiation belts to be held 7-8 a.m., Friday, Jan. 30, 1998 in the Atrium of the First National Bank, downtown Iowa City. Please use the Washington Street entrance.

UI Space Pioneer James A. Van Allen celebrates 40th Anniversary of Explorer 1

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- On Friday, Jan. 30, James A. Van Allen, Regent Distinguished Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Iowa and a "founding father" of the space age, will celebrate the 40th Anniversary of the U.S. Army's launch of Explorer 1, the first successful U.S. space mission, by attending a relaxed reception with friends and colleagues in Iowa City. (Receptions will also be held by Caltech's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., which developed the satellite, and at the Air Force Space and Missile Museum, Cape Canaveral, Fla., site of the launch.)

But on that January 31, 1958 launch day, at the height of U.S.-Soviet space race and before the birth of NASA, the atmosphere was anything but relaxed.

In his book, "Origins of Magnetospheric Physics," Van Allen writes:

"The clock ticked away, and we all drank coffee to allay our collective anxiety. After some 90 minutes, all conversation ceased, and an air of dazed disappointment settled over the room. Then, nearly two hours after launch, a telephone report of confirmed reception of the radio signal by two professional stations in Earthquake Valley, California was received.

"The roomful of people exploded with exultation, and everyone was pounding each other on the back with mutual congratulations."

Van Allen recalls, "A big press conference had been called at the Great Hall of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C., and although it was 1:30 in the morning, there was still a huge crowd of reporters waiting around."

The occasion would be immortalized by a photograph showing Van Allen, Jet Propulsion Laboratory Director William Pickering, and Rocket Scientist Wernher Von Braun standing side-by-side as they hoisted a scale model of the Explorer 1 satellite above their heads.

It was an even greater thrill during the following two months, Van Allen adds, to receive data from Explorer 1. The data, gathered by a UI-designed-and-built cosmic ray detector and combined with similar data gathered by Explorer 3, would enable Van Allen to announce on May 1, 1958 his discovery of energetic particles in the magnetic field surrounding the Earth, a phenomenon that came to be known as the Van Allen radiation belts. Since then, Van Allen has had the satisfaction of seeing his original research not only withstand the test of time, but blossom into the science of magnetospheric physics, a field that currently engages more than 1,000 researchers worldwide.

At the University of Iowa, where researchers have designed and built scientific instruments for more than 50 successful U.S. satellites and space probes, the legacy of Explorer 1 is very rich. Van Allen takes pride in his 1973 first-ever survey of Jupiter's radiation belts using the Pioneer 10 spacecraft and his 1979 discovery and survey of Saturn's radiation belts using Pioneer 11.

"My University of Iowa colleagues, Donald Gurnett and Louis Frank (who were his students in 1958), and I have participated in 36 missions, including investigations of Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune" Van Allen says. "We currently have active instruments on three Earth orbiters, and there are five deep space missions at the present time on which we have instruments. These are: Pioneer 10, Voyager 1, Voyager 2, Galileo and Cassini."

Van Allen adds that the public should think about the enormous number of everyday applications that have resulted from the U.S. space program. "These include the international communications satellite systems, the global positioning system (GPS) for navigation, the great LANDSAT surveillance system to map the Earth's resources, and, of course, our weather satellites," he says.

Van Allen asserts that the past 40 years are just the beginning of space science research.

"There is no shortage of great ideas on what we'd like to do," he says. "'Better, faster, cheaper' is NASA's mantra, and the recent successful launch of the Lunar Prospector spacecraft is the best example of that. But the Hubble Space Telescope is a good example of big projects that will continue to be conducted.

"I think we have a very bright future in space science in all areas. There is good public support," Van Allen says. "There is virtually no limit to what can be investigated in interplanetary science and astronomy."