The Van Allen Rescue Mission

A gift to the University of Iowa Libraries from the Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust Preserves the Van Allen Explorer Tapes

To a layperson, the sounds mimic a steady breath of discordant tones and beeps embedded in an ocean of static. But to astrophysicist James Van Allen (1936 M.S., 1939 Ph.D.), the audio data brought back from the Explorer satellites decades ago meant something far more meaningful—and would lead to his discovery of radiation belts encircling the Earth.

In early 2016, the University of Iowa Libraries will exhibit a number of vestiges from Van Allen’s work in a new, museum-quality gallery situated on the ground floor of the Main Library. The exhibit follows almost seven years of collecting, cleaning, digitizing, and labeling the original Explorer tapes—a process made possible, in part, by a generous grant from the Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust in Muscatine, Iowa, and begun thanks to a “Eureka!” moment experienced by one UI employee.

One September day in 2009, Greg Prickman, head of Special Collections at the University of Iowa Libraries, walked down into the basement of MacLean Hall, and into a dingy, poorly lit room that formerly housed the UI physics department’s particle accelerator. He was excited and anxious. This space once served as part of Van Allen’s laboratory. And Prickman had learned these rooms might just contain some key artifacts from the great space-scientist’s research.

And indeed they did. Row after row of slender boxes filled shelves that stretched to the ceiling. There were hundreds of such boxes. And each one housed an original reel-to-reel magnetic audio tape containing signals received and recorded from the Explorer satellite missions first launched in 1958. Prickman’s first thought, he says now, was, “We might have a problem here.” The room smelled strongly of mold. There was standing water on the floor. White and fuzzy mildew covered many of the boxes.

“The tapes inside the boxes looked fine,” says Prickman, “but it’s hard to say what could have happened had they stayed in that environment for much longer. I knew exactly what we needed to do to get started.”

The rescue mission began almost immediately. To clean the tapes, library student employees donned hazmat suits and stood at a table outfitted with a vacuum. The mold and dust from the boxes were sucked down into a HEPA filter. “It was pretty awful in there,” says Prickman of the workspace in MacLean Hall. “It was hot. It was wet. It was moldy. It was not your average student job.”

And the digitization was also not an average expense. But Troy Ross, Ph. D. (1983 B.S.), executive administrator with the Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust, noted it was not a difficult decision for the trustees to act once they realized that this aspect of Van Allen’s legacy was in danger of being lost.

“Dr. Van Allen’s Iowa heritage and relentless work ethic, his lifelong commitment to education, and his incomparable contributions to scholarship and scientific advancement all represent the best that our state and the UI have to offer,” says Ross.

UI’s University Librarian John Culshaw notes that the Carver Charitable Trust is one of their strongest partners and supporters. “They are interested in initiatives that support students broadly,” he says. “And what better organization to support students broadly than the libraries?” Carver Charitable Trust funds not only supported the digitization of the Explorer 1 and 3 tapes, but also helped create a comprehensive website detailing the story and the science of Van Allen’s historic research. The site includes a button allowing web viewers to listen in on the satellite’s original audio data. The Carver Charitable Trust also provided $500,000 for the new library gallery space.

Today, hundreds of the tapes sit in pristine manila envelopes at University of Iowa Libraries. Others are being digitized out-of-state. Once the digitized collection is in place, the originals will be sent to cold storage. “There was no NASA then,” notes Prickman of the priceless collection. “It all came to Iowa.”

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