Science: Reach into Space

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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.

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