May 31, 2020

The First Eight Billion Miles; A Biography of James Van Allen by Abigail Foerstner.

The tale of unmanned space exploration is an unsung saga of 20th century science.

James Van Allen: the First Eight Billion Miles by Abigail Foerstner (University of Iowa Press) traces the life of one of the true visionaries of the American space program. When my wife saw me reading it, the cover elicited a “who’s he?” that no doubt would echo througha majority of the American adult population. After the initial flurry of interest in the first Explorer series of satellites subsided, few remember this Iowa physicist of the early Space Age. His name never became a household word like Einstein or Von Braun; yet, we could have never had gone to the Moon without his pioneering discoveries.

Most famously known for his discoveries of the Van Allen radiation belts , he illustrated that manned travel in space would be a very dangerous place.

Van Allen built his early experiments literally on a shoe string budget, often utilizing or fabricating parts and equipment. Long before the first space shot, Van Allen was launching payloads on sounding rockets, often journeying to the ends of the Earth, or at least the Antarctic, to do so. The First Eight Billion Miles covers his life from early childhood up through his military years, his space research and his death in 2006. He never referred to the radiation belts girdling the Earth as the “Van Allen belts;” that name was later bestowed by the media. Check out this cool circa 1960′s vid and watch for Van Allen at the end… I love the “Meanwhile, at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory…” dramatic dialogue!

Everyone knows of the intrigue surrounding the projects and scientists’ race to build the first Atom Bomb during World War II, but few (including myself!) know of the development of theVT (Variable Time)fuze. (Yes, I use the US Air Force spelling, thank you very much!) As a former Armament Technician myself, I found this tale fascinating.

TheVT fuzewas the first true radar proximity fuze, and it was one of the great secrets of the war. Designed by Van Allen, it was integrated into anti-aircraft rounds and routinely brought down enemy aircraft with astonishing efficiency.Even ifhe hadneverdone any further scientific research, this contribution alone would have been outstanding.

When Sputnik was launched by the Soviets in the fall of 1957, America was caught off guard. The ill planned Vanguard mission was found wanting, and America disparately needed a win in space. Van Allen provided one with the first true scientific discovery in space; the inner and outer radiation belts. Skirting these was critical to the Apollo manned missions to the Moon, and the reliable functioning of the grid of artificial satellites that exists today. Van Allen also successfully leveraged his fame, urging the creation of a civilian based space agency. This was another under appreciated feat; a fledgling NASA could have easily fallen under the sway of the Navy or Air Force, both of whom were vying for ultimate control of the domain of space. The vision of Van Allen and Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy kept the fear mongering at bay. When they were first discovered, there was a temporary concern that the radiation belts were man made, caused by atomic testing in the 50′s. Van Allen showed that they stemmed from natural causes, such as charged neutrons from cosmic rayscaught in theEarth’s magnetic field (the inner belt) and displaced electrons streaming in from the solar winds (the outer belt). He also demonstrated that atomic testing could be detected from space, which in turn led to a ban on the militarization of space . This was extremely fortunate; one of the early plans for a “missile defense shield” involved detonation one several hundred atomic weapons in the Earth’s atmosphere per day, just to create a “radiation web” above the U.S.! One shudders to think that such a proposal could even have been on the table…

Later, Van Allen was involved in the Mariner unmanned missions to the Moon and the Voyager missions to the outer solar system. Van Allen carried out scientific research right up into his 80′s and the 21st century, demonstrating the boundaries of the termination shock and the Heliopause as faint data was relayed via the Deep Space network from the Voyager space craft. TheVoyager 1 is still tracked by the Deep Space Network and May 22nd, 2008 wasat a distance of 106.4 AUs from the Sun. The passing of Van Allen on August 9th, 2006 at age 91 represented a tremendous loss to space science.

Incidentally, Van Allen is said to have deliberately left a fingerprint on the Pioneer 10 plaque fixed to the spacecraft! Perhaps, long after mankind is extinct, the finger print will be one of the few remaining signatures that humans too, were once here…

Read The First Eight Million Miles to discover a brilliant untold saga of the early space age. We definitely need more scientists of his caliber…and will the next Van Allen please stand up?


  1. [...] This post was Twitted by Astroguyz [...]

  2. [...] to think that these “space artifacts” might just out-live humanity itself. In his biography The First 8 Billion Miles, scientist James Van Allen jokes about how he deliberately placed a fingerprint on the Pioneer 10 [...]

  3. [...] The first spacecraft sent on escape trajectories out of our solar system, the Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecraft each carry a plaque which serves as a sort of postcard “greeting” to any future interceptors. The plaque depicts a diagram of the solar system, a map of our location in the galaxy using the positions of known pulsars, and a nude man & woman, which actually generated lots of controversy.  Scientist James Van Allen tells of deliberately placing a fingerprint on the Pioneer 10 plaque in his biography The First Eight Billion Miles. [...]

  4. [...] such brash ideas as Houbolt’s would have never seen the light of day. Thank scientists such as James Van Allen for promoting the idea of a civilian space program that we take for granted [...]

  5. [...] such brash ideas as Houbolt’s would have never seen the light of day. Thank scientists such as James Van Allen for promoting the idea of a civilian space program that we take for granted [...]

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