The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

Princes of space/time

Tom Jorgensen
Donald Gurnett Department of Physics and AstronomyThe University of Iowa

By Stacey Murray  |  [email protected]

Tucked between Biology Building East and Seashore Hall on the University of Iowa campus sits an F-shaped building quickly falling into disrepair. The walls blandly reflect a dingy pseudo-color somewhere between yellow and tan. In the lobby are  aging displays, paying respects to the scientist for whom the building was named.

Seven flights up, Professor Don Gurnett’s office sits off a hall lined with teal cinderblocks. There’s a wooden table in the center of his office and a filing cabinet, tucked against the wall, containing records of every student who has passed through his various classrooms in  his nearly 50 years of teaching. Next to his computer is a briefcase with a crushed velvet interior it appears he’s had for quite some time. Above the door hang crooked picture frames, with photographs of satellites and other spacecraft.

The 70-something Gurnett works on a dated Toshiba laptop. He’s a tall man with hooded blue eyes and glasses that he wears on occasion pushed to the very tip of his nose. He keeps a calendar by hand, with dates written out on a sheet of lined paper.

While his habits suggest antiquity, his accolades suggest trailblazer.

It’s a bright day, but when leaving Van Allen, there’s a sense that the Sun is setting.

On a brilliant career. On a famed spacecraft. And a program.

“I’m really lucky I didn’t get killed, actually,” Gurnett said.

It was a youthful indiscretion. Gurnett, a young man enamored with rockets, decided to build his own. Then just a kid, around 10 years old, he used salter, pewter, charcoal, and sulfur, a combination first tried by the Chinese almost 2,000 years ago.

He found the concoction in a book at the Cedar Rapids library. Gurnett, who grew up on a farm near Fairfax, would ride into Cedar Rapids with his mother on Saturdays to go to the library. She would patiently wait for him to pick out a couple of books. And by the time he graduated from high school, he had read almost every technical book in that library.

“That’s where I learned a lot,” Gurnett said. “I can actually see that in my grandson. He knows all kind of stuff, and he’s a freshman in high school.”

Gurnett’s love of engineering and flying began at a hobby shop and the airport in Cedar Rapids. As a child, he participated in a model airplane club that met on Thursday nights. It wasn’t only for kids. There were adults, too, with some from Collins Radio, the business now known as Rockwell Collins, the engineering giant with a campus that takes up several blocks in Cedar Rapids.

There, Gurnett had his first interaction with an elite scientist: Alexander Lippisch, who was a part of the club. A German engineer, Lippisch came to the U.S. after World War II through Operation Paperclip, a program through the Office of Strategic Services, which brought more than 1,500 German scientists and engineers came to the U.S. after the fall of Nazi Germany in the 1940s.

“Here I am, a young kid in the presence of a German rocket scientist,” Gurnett said.

Gurnett picked up a work permit and was hired by the hobby shop. By the time he graduated from high school in 1957, he was in charge of order inventory. During those days at the shop, he found himself interested in radio controls and the kits in which he could build his own receivers and transmitters.

Upon his graduation, Gurnett had three schools in mind for his postsecondary education — Iowa State University, a school in St. Louis, and the University of Iowa.

He picked the UI for a simple reason: He needed money, and attending school in Iowa City meant he could keep his job at the hobby shop. He arrived in mid-September with the intention of studying electrical engineering.

Less than a month later — on Oct. 4, 1957 — the Soviet Union launched Sputnik into orbit — flabbergasting the world and sending chills down the spines of world leaders. Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, was only the size of a beach ball, according to NASA, but launched the dawn of the Space Age.

“I knew about that possibility, but it hadn’t been achieved yet,” Gurnett said. “In the middle of the Cold War, here’s a Russian object flying over the U.S., and it appeared the U.S. was seriously behind. That just fascinated me.”

On campus, the UI’s reputation for space exploration seems to be less well-known among its accolades. The Writers’ Workshop has been a defining part of Iowa City’s UNESCO City of Literature distinction since 2008.

But that’s the bubble the program lives in.

If you call over to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a federally funded research center in California, they will immediately recognize the name of the university and the researchers on its campus.

They’ll laugh about how often they’re questioned about the school in the Heartland that has been such a “titan” in the field. More than 60 spacecraft have had a component engineered at the UI.

And, of course, they’ll name the eponym of the department’s building and one of the most beloved members of UI’s history of space exploration.

Who other than James Van Allen?

Gurnett couldn’t help himself.

Almost four months after Sputnik launched, the U.S. answered with Explorer I. Van Allen had built the Geiger-Muller tube aboard the ship, which would later lead to the discovery of the trapped radiation surrounding the planet, later named the Van Allen Radiation Belt.

“I couldn’t resist having interest,” Gurnett said.

He walked across campus to MacLean Hall in search of a job.

But Van Allen wasn’t there. Instead, his secretary, Agnes, asked for Gurnett about his qualifications. Gurnett told her of his experience with radio electronics — forged out of countless hours in the hobby shop and perfected on the airport runway.

Shortly after he handed in his application, he received a handwritten note from Van Allen, asking him to join his group of researchers. But Gurnett had just accepted a position at Collins Radio for the summer.

It wasn’t a problem, though, as Gurnett and Van Allen agreed to bring him on in the fall as a student employee.

At that time, there was an explosion of activity on the campus. There was pressure mounting daily to get into space. A year later, Van Allen appeared on the cover of Time for his work in space and the radiation belts. That year, the federal government chartered NASA.

Time blurred.

In 1960, the S-46 spacecraft launched with a charged particle detector developed by Gurnett.

That craft fell into the ocean.

More time blurred.

It was around this time that Van Allen would decide the UI should build the entire craft, not just a few instruments on board.

By 1960, Gurnett was working anywhere between 40-80 hours per week as the project engineer on Injun 1. It was high pressure; students were going to school while sometimes getting home as the Sun was rising.

Injun 1 launched on June 29, 1961.

There would be more projects — a lot more — and Gurnett would have success.

But what was important for Gurnett was the handwritten note that became a job, and so he jumped into the rabbit hole of space research that would take him past the edge of the Solar System.

“This is no longer your grandfather’s space program,” Darrel West, the VP and director of governance studies, told a panel at the A. Alfred Taubman Forum on Foreign Policy.

Space research, the way it’s conducted and used, has changed drastically since its inception. In the 1950s and 1960s, space travel centered on the Cold War and traveling to the Moon. Now, large corporations are major players, and celebrities are putting down $250,000 in hopes of taking a commercial flight into space.

According to the Council on Foreign Relations, NASA accounted for 4.5 percent of the federal budget at its peak in fiscal 1966. By 1975, it reached 1 percent. Funding has continued to decline since then, and it accounted for roughly half a percent of the budget in fiscal 2014, or around $17.6 billion, according to federal data.

Typically, according to the council, 85-90 percent of that budget is sent to private contractors, which design rockets and spacecraft.

In 2006, NASA began the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, which will privatize some travel between Earth and the International Space Station. The thought is that private companies can provide transportation to low-Earth orbit.

Privatization hasn’t been flawless, though.

In 2014, Virgin Galactic, one of the companies, had a test flight crash, and it killed one of its crew members while injuring the other. Later that year, a refuel mission heading to the International Space Station exploded shortly after its launch in West Virginia.

But this commercialization isn’t the only change space research has faced.

Entire vessels, like Injun 1, were once built entirely at universities, which also tracked their own data. Now, more and more space corporations are building the satellites and other craft, with universities tacking on their own inventions to collect data.

“There’s more and more; as these spacecraft become more complex, more costly, they’re much more in the hands of the aerospace companies,” said Robert Mutel, a UI professor of physics/astronomy.

That means more levels of bureaucracy.

“It’s harder and harder to have a university have a significant contribution,” Mutel said.

It’s a curious thing, he says, those whistlers.

It’s his child-like wonder driving his curiosity, though it’s somewhat ironic, as Gurnett likely understands the workings of the universe better than most.

Gurnett attended a seminar led by a French scientist in 1961. Whistlers at that point were known to be created when lightning struck, and electromagnetic waves traveled along Earth’s magnetic field, bouncing from one hemisphere to another, creating the whistling sound.

Fascinated by the concept, Gurnett returned to his father’s farm with an antenna in hopes of capturing those waves. It took three nights, but he took his data back to Van Allen.

Those sounds could come straight out of a movie. They sound like fake lasers shooting from a child’s toy, followed by a lower frequency whooshing noise.

And that night on the farm, Gurnett hadn’t discovered anything new, but he was in awe as he stood under Iowa’s open sky.

He helped with other discoveries relating to those whistlers later, but at that moment, it was a curious thing for an Iowa boy, adventuring on his parents’ farm.

It was a simple enough concept. Gas-filled balloons would take rockets to the upper atmosphere before the rocket would ignite. Technology was limited, but this contraption, called a rockoon, would get the rocket to a higher altitude without being forced to fight the drag as it pushed through the lower parts of the atmosphere.

It wasn’t a perfect plan; Time reported that Van Allen couldn’t fire the rockets in Iowa because using a balloon meant there was no ability to steer the contraption. So, Van Allen convinced the U.S. Coast Guard to fire them from Greenland.

In the first two attempts, Time says, the rocket failed to fire. There was a theory that the cold stopped a clock that was supposed to ignite the rockets.

But Van Allen wasn’t ready to be beat. So, he heated cans of orange juice and put them into the balloon’s gondola before wrapping it in insulation.

The third rocket did indeed fire.

It was such a curious thing.

The programs in Van Allen, like much of the UI, are feeling financial pressure.

From 2006-2016, the space programs have received $98 million in external funding, from places such as NASA, to do research.

Those funds are used to pay for engineers, technicians, overhead, and the actual building materials for instruments that go on these spacecraft. They’re also used for travel between NASA, the Jet Propulsion Lab, and the UI, as well as when researchers subcontract parts of their projects — using things that require special skills or tools — out to companies.

But they didn’t actually see all $98 million awarded through these grants. Over that same time period, roughly $27 million — or roughly 28 percent of the funding — went into the UI’s general fund to be used on other projects.

It has left the program hurting.

It could be a problem that originated because of good intentions. Van Allen didn’t ask for much, Professor Frederick Skiff said.

But the program is looking now.

“Historically, it’s sort of Van Allen’s legacy, and I’d like to build on that because, the fact is, that if lose it, you can’t rebuild it. It would be out of reach,” Skiff said.

Voyager I is perhaps the best-known success — outside of Van Allen’s radiation belts — from the program. Some faculty members, like Mutel, would point to various papers done by Gurnett, but Voyager is Gurnett’s favorite.

The craft, launched on Sept. 5, 1997, is part of the Voyager program focused on studying parts of the outer Solar System. The main part of the mission was to fly by Jupiter, Saturn, and one of Saturn’s moons, Titan. The images provided by Voyager would be the first of the planets in the outer solar system. Voyager I’s sister, Voyager II, explored Uranus and Neptune, the only spacecraft to have done so.

There were plenty of discoveries, too. Scientists learned there are active volcanoes on Jupiter’s moons and Saturn’s rings.

But in August 2012, Gurnett learned, from data collected by the instrument he created, that Voyager I had ventured into interstellar space.

The science is complicated. The plasma wave instrument detected a change in density that was roughly 40 times that of the area inside the heliopause, or the boundary for the Solar System. It was the first sign of entering interstellar space, and it came via what sounds like a high-pitched squeal. That sound is made from Gurnett’s instrument detecting vibrations in that denser plasma.

There were headlines — from the New York Times to Forbes — documenting the moment. Voyager I was more than 11.8 billion miles from the Sun and venturing into the literal unknown, sending data back to its home at the UI.

Gurnett isn’t ready to retire, at least not yet. He loves teaching, and he’s a beloved educator.

He’s repeatedly recognized by students as one of their favorite instructors in the department,

And his mentor, Van Allen, was, too.

There are similarities between Gurnett and Van Allen, Mutel said. They’re both humble, never-take-yourself-too-seriously, self-effacing guys. Both Van Allen and Gurnett grew up in rural Iowa — scientific gems among the many fields.

As Van Allen was the figurehead of the program, Gurnett is, too.

But it’s unclear if space research at the UI is ready for life after Don.

“There’s a fork coming up in the road,” Mutel said. “And unless the university is proactive about it, we’re going to end up on the wrong side of the fork.”

At one time, Van Allen, Gurnett, and Lou Frank were all working with a crew out of the large machine shop on campus, cranking out research in different fields. They shared support staff, engineers, technicians, and computers.

Frank died in 2014. Van Allen in 2006.

Gurnett doesn’t seem to have intentions of retiring immediately, but department officials know he will choose to eventually, even if that date is unclear.

Now, Gurnett and Craig Kletzing, another professor in the department, have their own crews, but Gurnett’s is larger, and when he retires, that crew of seasoned and senior staffers — some who have been there for nearly 40 years and are in their 60s — won’t likely be replaced, Mutel said.

It’s a scary prospect.

“We don’t want this thing to die,” Mutel said.

Members of the faculty want to bring one or two promising young space physicists on board, but it’s an expensive proposition. Jasper Halekas, who earned a Ph.D. from the University of California-Berkeley, recently joined the UI.

And more faculty members would help to keep the production of space-research instruments flowing, but these additions require competitive salaries and start-up packages and workspaces, which can sometimes bring price tags upward of $1 million.

And the conversation, again, turns to money.

Money. And James Van Allen. And Don Gurnett. And legacies.

Voyager I is working on a difficult timeline.

Power is a limited resource those billions of miles away. The radioactive isotope, plutonium, has been giving off heat to power the spacecraft for the last 38 years.

But that’s a long time, and the spacecraft has completed the tasks it was launched to do.

Now, Suzanne Dodd, the project manager for the Voyager Interstellar Mission, said it’s time to start talking about turning off instruments aboard the spacecraft.

The first ones will go off in 2020. The last, in 2025, maybe a little longer. Then, there won’t be anymore scientific data. There will be another three- to five-year period in which scientists will still get engineering data, telling those on Earth how far away the craft is.

But no spacecraft has operated as long or gone as far. Everything Voyager does now is unchartered territory.

Right now, Dodd said the hope is to hit the 50-years-of-operation mark, which would come on Sept. 5, 2027. Gurnett will be 87 years old.

If everything on board stays healthy, Dodd said, that should be doable.

But 2027 isn’t that far away.

“One day, we’ll come into the office and expect to see a signal from the spacecraft, and it just won’t be there,” she said.

In many ways, it’s twilight at Van Allen Hall. Voyager is heading into oblivion, and one of science’s greats is approaching retirement, though the exact date is unknown.

“Some of the greats in the field need to pass the baton,” said Jim Green, a former student of Gurnett’s who now serves as the planetary science division director at NASA.

“It’ll be kind of a sad time,” Gurnett said. “It becomes a question of whether the spacecraft outlasts us.

“There’s some truth to that actually.”

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