Apollo Investigation

Jarrah White’s Column

Dubious Pro-Apollo Claims Debunked: No.6

Did Dr. James Van Allen change his mind or was it changed for him?

Previously, I debunked the claim that there were no major solar flares during the Apollo missions. But solar flares are only one source of ionizing radiation posing a threat to astronauts on a journey to the Moon. I am of course talking about the Van Allen radiation belts surrounding the Earth. In this column we’ll establish what their discoverer had to say about them.

Fig. 1

Fig 1. NASA diagram of the inner and outer Van Allen radiation belts.

In 1958, the Explorer 1 and 3 satellites carried Geiger counters into Earth orbit (Explorer 2 carried a similar package but failed to reach space). Later missions starting from Explorer 4 onward and the Pioneer probes carried additional Geiger counters shielded in 1mm of lead, with unshielded Geiger counters as control detectors. They also carried scintillators and other radiation detectors.

Fig. 2

Fig 2. Dr. James Van Allen [center, standing], together with JPL Director Dr. William Pickering and rocket genius Dr. Werner von Braun, victoriously hold up a model of their Explorer 1 satellite before the press.

The designer of these radiation experiments, Dr. James Van Allen of the University of Iowa, wrote about the results in the March 1959 issue of Scientific American. Regarding the detections by Explorer 1 and 3, he wrote:

At altitudes of 200 to 300 miles the counting rate was low. When the satellite went out to 500 to 600 miles, the apparent rate ascended rapidly and then dropped almost to zero. […] A sufficiently high level of radiation can jam the counter and send the apparent counting rate to zero. We had discovered an enormously high level of radiation, not a lack of it.1

Subsequent missions with better shielded detectors confirmed that there were two belts of radiation, an inner proton belt and an outer electron belt. Van Allen concluded:

Our measurements show that the maximum radiation level as of 1958 is equivalent to between 10 and 100 roentgens per hour, depending on the still-undetermined proportion of protons to electrons. Since a human being exposed for two days to even 10 roentgens would have only an even chance of survival, the radiation belts obviously present an obstacle to space flight. Unless some practical way can be found to shield space-travelers against the effects of radiation, manned space rockets can best take off through the radiation-free zone over the poles.

Van Allen repeated these sentiments almost verbatim a December 1961 article of Space World provocatively titled: THE DANGER ZONE: Earth is wrapped in deadly belts of radiation:

The exposure level in the heart of the inner zone is about 10 roentgen/hr within a shield of 1g/cm2 of iron. Owing to the great penetrability of the high-energy protons therein, effective shielding is quite beyond engineering feasibility in the near future. Hence the inner zone must be classed as an uninhabitable region of space as far as man is concerned.”2

He also added that a lead shield rated at 4g/cm2 only mildly reduced the proton dose rates he recorded. By comparison, the Apollo spacecraft shielding of aluminium, stainless steel and ablative material was rated at 7-8g/cm2 .3 J.W. Keller et al. [1963] determined that ~100g/cm2 of shielding would be needed to reduce the proton dose down to ~1 roentgen/hr.4

Again, Van Allen opted for a polar trajectory to avoid the belts: “The outer zone is much more difficult to avoid [than the inner zone]. There do appear to be ‘cones of escape’ over the north and south geomagnetic poles. The half angle of these outward-opening cones is about 20°.” Because the geomagnetic poles are offset to the geographical poles by 11.5°, this places Van Allen’s cones of escape between 58.5° and 81.5°. Apollo translunar trajectory was always inclined to the equator by ~30°.

Van Allen then concluded with: “All manned space flight attempts must steer clear of these two belts of radiation until adequate means of safeguarding the astronauts has been developed.” The numbers above indicate neither was done.

Ralph René added appendixes to later editions of his book NASA Mooned America!, citing Van Allen’s articles as evidence that the Apollo astronauts couldn’t have survived the radiation.5 This argument gained worldwide attention from larger general audiences when it appeared in the Fox special Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon?

In response, Jay Windley’s Clavius website prominently featured an alleged denial from Van Allen himself.6 No reference is given, but it comes from the final paragraph of a much longer message posted by Doug Lambert on the old Bad Astronomy forum (now CosmoQuest). Lambert claims he received the following email from Van Allen now enshrined on the internet:

Dear Mr. Lambert,

In reply to your e-mail, I send you the following copy of a response that I wrote to another inquiry about 2 months ago --

Ø The radiation belts of the Earth do, indeed, pose important constraints on the safety of human space flight.

Ø The very energetic (tens to hundreds of MeV) protons in the inner radiation belt are the most dangerous and most difficult to shield against. Specifically, prolonged flights (i.e., ones of many months' duration) of humans or other animals in orbits about the Earth must be conducted at altitudes less than about 250 miles in order to avoid significant radiation exposure.

Ø A person in the cabin of a space shuttle in a circular equatorial orbit in the most intense region of the inner radiation belt, at an altitude of about 1000 miles, would be subjected to a fatal dosage of radiation in about one week.

Ø However, the outbound and inbound trajectories of the Apollo spacecraft cut through the outer portions of the inner belt and because of their high speed spent only about 15 minutes in traversing the region and less than 2 hours in traversing the much less penetrating radiation in the outer radiation belt. The resulting radiation exposure for the round trip was less than 1% of a fatal dosage – a very minor risk among the far greater other risks of such flights. I made such estimates in the early 1960s and so informed NASA engineers who were planning the Apollo flights. These estimates are still reliable.

Ø The recent Fox TV show, which I saw, is an ingenious and entertaining assemblage of nonsense. The claim that radiation exposure during the Apollo missions would have been fatal to the astronauts is only one example of such nonsense.

James A. Van Allen”7

There is a lot to unpack, so strap yourself in.

The first paragraph is a given. No dispute here.

The second paragraph is also true but worded ambiguously and misleadingly. His statements about keeping "prolonged flights" below 250 miles to "avoid significant radiation damage" would suggest that Van Allen is discussing the South Atlantic Anomaly (SAA) region, where the inner belt dips many hundreds of kilometers below its usual starting altitude. This is more a concern for space station crews, many of whom have received cataracts from prolonged exposure to the SAA. Obviously the fluxes therein and consequent SAA dose rates are miniscule compared to that of the main belts, which were the Apollo crews' concern.

The third paragraph does specifically discuss the main inner belt, however it is demonstrably false. The Space Shuttle’s hull was rated at about 10-11g/cm2, which corresponds to a proton attenuation of about 10MeV. Meaning that a proton must have energy >10MeV to penetrate the hull.

Fig. 3

Fig. 3: Proton attenuation in material plotted as a function of proton energy and areal density of materials. The orange line represents the attenuation offered by the Apollo CSM’s hull of honeycombed aluminium and stainless steel (copper is similar in density to steel) and ablative resin rated at 8g/cm2. The blue line represents the attenuation offered by the Space Shuttle with its hull predominantly aluminium encrusted with lightweight ceramic tiles rated at 10-11g/cm2 [J.W. Keller et al. 1963], annotated by J. White.

Using the industry standard AP-8 Max model for the Van Allen belt: for Energy = 10MeV, Magnetic Shell at L = 1.6 (corresponding to a 1,000miles altitude) and Magnetic Field Strength at B/B0 = 1 (corresponding to a perfectly equatorial orbit), the resulting integral proton flux is 3.162E+05.8

Fig. 4

Fig. 4: The integral flux for >10MeV protons in Van Allen’s hypothetical suicide orbit as indicated by the AP-8 Max model.

In the previous column we learned how to convert time-integrated proton fluxes to absorbed doses. To find the absorbed dose rates we need some extra steps to convert seconds to hours. Crunching the numbers we get:

(3.162x105protons/cm2/s)*(1002cm2/m2)*(3600s/hr) = 1.13832x1013 protons/m2/hr
(1.13832x1013 protons/m2/hr)*2m2 = 2.27664x1013 protons/hr
(2.27664x1013 protons/hr)*(10 MeV/Proton) = 2.27664x1014 MeV/hr
(2.27664x1014 MeV/hr)*(1.6*10-13Joules/MeV) = 36.42624 Joules/hr
(36.42624 Joules/hr)/72.5kg = 0.50243 Gray/hr
(0.50243 Gray/hr)*100rad/Gray = 50.243 rad/hr

Thus, Shuttle astronauts on a 1,000mile (1,609km) altitude equatorial orbit would be absorbing close to 50rads every hour. This still needs to be multiplied by the appropriate radiation weight factor (WR) to convert to the equivalent dose. As established previously, for protons WR = 5.

(50.243 rad/hr)*5 = 251.215rem

Dr. Van Allen himself stated that 10roentgens over two days only gives a 50/50 chance of survival. Our calculated rate of 251.215rem/hr is equal to 286.4roentgens/hr! And that is without even correcting for the AP-8’s tendency to underestimate the fluxes.9, 10 Clearly, any astronaut unfortunate enough to be on Van Allen’s proposed 1,000 miles altitude equatorial suicide orbit would receive a fatal dose of radiation within hours, not one week.

And the fourth and fifth paragraphs of Van Allen’s alleged email are bare assertion. With the fourth heavily reliant on unsubstantiated and unspecified assertions that are in direct contradiction to what he had previously stated. In the 1960s, he opted to fly through the “cones of escape” or “the radiation-free zone over the poles”, not “cut through the outer portions of the inner belt”. Why did he not specify the coordinates attributed those outer portions? Spoiler alert: as I showed in my MoonFaker: Radiation Reloaded video, using the coordinates attributed to Apollo 11 and the corresponding AP-8 proton fluxes (with corrections made for the AP-8 underestimations), I calculated that the equivalent proton dose would have been ~100rem for the two way trip.11

I would go as far as to say that Van Allen’s mind was changed for him. Before his alleged response to the Fox documentary, Van Allen was quoted in an October 1997 Media Bypass article as stating his 1959 Scientific American article was merely “popular science,”12 which is the term for science articles dumbed down for lay people to understand. Some university professors don’t like their students citing pop-science articles in their assignments, preferring that their primary research and references come from the peer-reviewed scientific journals such as Science or Nature.

This rule is generally employed because many pop-science writers and editors are more journalists than professional scientists, and sometimes things get lost in translation. But this ‘pop-science’ article in question was written by James Van Allen himself. His March 1959 Scientific American article is essentially a more reader-friendly version of his February 1959 Nature paper.

This paper is more concerned with the science involved and the measurements they made, rather than the effects on astronauts, and mentions similar dose rates to those reported in Scientific American. He provides the following equation for the dose rate:

(roentgens/hr.) = 2.0 x 10-4 (S/Sm)R

Where R in sec-1 is the true counting rate as plotted in their paper’s diagrams and (S/Sm) is the mean ratio of specific ionization of particles to the minimum value for a fast singly charged particle.

The paper states:

For example, the maximum observed exposure-levels in the hearts of the two belts are in the range of 5-10 roentgens/hr if the response of the detector is due only to direct penetrations by electrons. If the response is due to only protons having a rapidly falling spectrum in tens of MeV range, as another example, (S/Sm) is in the order of 10-20 and the exposure would be in the range of 50-100 roentgens/hr.13

This does not diminish or undermine what Van Allen wrote in Scientific American, but merely provides further clarification on his maximum dose rates. And again, as stated above, it must be emphasized that the corrected AP-8 proton fluxes corresponding to Apollo 11’s purported coordinates yield dose rates are indeed close to Van Allen’s original max figure of 100roentgens.

The Media Bypass interview continues with:

“Are you refuting your findings?” we asked.
“Absolutely not,” he answered. “I stand by them.”
In the next breath, Van Allen acquiesced to NASA’s point of view. He became positively mercurial in his answers. Basically he defended NASA’s position that any material, even aluminum without shielding, was adequate to protect the astronauts from the radiation he once called deadly. When we asked him the point of his original warning about rushing through the Belt, he said, “It must have been a sloppy statement.”

René had also been in communication with Van Allen before he died in 2006. He told me:

I used to write to [Van Allen] and say ‘Listen, you’re getting older by the day, you wanna die with this shit on your conscience?’ And now he says, ‘Well, maybe we made a mistake’. Geiger counters don’t make mistakes!

For the longest time, the propagandists’ modus operendi was to simply avoid any mention of Van Allen’s original writings and double down on his retraction whenever said writings were mentioned or brought up in discussion. This is very reminiscent of NASA’s actions after the Challenger disaster. They waved Morton Thiokol’s written approval to launch the Challenger in cold weather as though it was always the contractor’s only recommendation. Not once did NASA tell the Rogers Commission that Morton Thiokol’s original recommendation was not to launch, and that NASA only got that written approval after they pressured the Thiokol managers to change their minds. That fact only came to light when Thiokol whistleblowers such as Al McDonald and Roger Boisjoly spoke up.14, 15

With Van Allen’s original articles becoming more easily accessible online, many propagandists have gone into damage control. Some simply claim that Van Allen’s original concerns were primitive and outdated. While others such as Robert Braeunig adamantly denied that Van Allen’s original writings even suggested that the radiation belts were insurmountable and tried to twist his words into a ‘solution’ to the problem! Then he deleted any mention of the Apollo hoax from his website after my MoonFaker: Radiation Reloaded proved he was deceptively attempting to downplay the radiation hazard.

Propagandists can deny what Van Allen’s original articles implied all they want. But they’re not fooling anybody who actually read them. Even the Apollo 8 Commander Frank Borman mockingly referenced Van Allen’s original concerns twice in his 1988 autobiography Countdown. First on pages 203-204:

Slightly less than five hours after lift-off we passed through the Van Allen radiation belt, and [Bill] Anders transmitted our personal radiation dosimeter (PDR) readings. Even in the thickest part of the belt, they showed we were receiving about the same dosage we’d get from a chest X ray. So much for all the dire predictions some scientists had made about harmful, perhaps fatal, exposure to that belt.16

And then again on page 220:

The whole Apollo program made a lot of scientists look foolish, starting with those who had pronounced the Van Allen radiation belt an insurmountable barrier to space flight. I've long since refused to take the word of any scientist as gospel.

Borman discretely didn’t name Van Allen in these derogatory statements. Not until after his death in 2006. During a public talk on November 13, 2008, in commemoration of the then upcoming 40th anniversary of Apollo 8, Borman mentioned that when inflight motion sickness caused him to vomit, Van Allen initially feared it was actually the effects of radiation sickness kicking in:

Interestingly enough, all the scientists and Dr. Van Allen was convinced that we got fried going through his ionosphere belt (sic), this [and] now the doctors were going nuts, they couldn't decide whether or not they were going to abort the mission.17

In conclusion, any attempts by propagandists to flog Van Allen’s unsubstantiated retraction is a complete red herring. A diversionary tactic specifically intended to distract their readers from his actual papers on the belts, and lead them to a false conclusion. Should readers trust a murderer’s “not guilty” plea after he previously confessed to said murder, explained exactly how it was done, and even provided the murder weapon?

Ironically, all the smug little CosmoQuest comments posted below this unsubstantiated retraction only reveal the forum to be an echo chamber for propagandists. One user wrote: “Most [conspiracy theorists] will probably stop after the third paragraph and claim that JVA agrees with them, the belts are deadly.” Actually, it seems all propagandists stopped fact checking Van Allen’s retraction before they got to the third paragraph. Or they would know a fatal dose received when traversing the heart of the inner radiation zone would be received in hours, not in a week.

Jarrah White

Aulis Online, January 2023

Jarrah WhiteAbout the Author

Jarrah White is an Australian filmmaker, astrophysicist and geologist. He has Certificate III & IV qualifications with distinctions in Screen and Media at the Sydney Institute of TAFE NSW, Australia; and a BSc with a Major in Geology and a Minor in Astrophysics completed in November 2017 and July 2019 respectively.



  1. J.A. Van Allen (1959) Radiation Belts around The Earth, Scientific American, Vol. 200, No. 3, pp39-47
  2. James Van Allen (1961) Space World, The Danger Zone: Earth is wrapped in deadly belts of radiation
  3. T. Phillips (2005) Sickening Solar Flares, Science@NASA
  4. J.W. Keller, R.D. Shelton, M.O. Burrell, J.A. Downey III (1963) Problems in Radiation Shielding of Space Vehicles (In Astronautical Engineering and Science: From Peenemünde to Planetary Space, edited by E. Stuhlinger, F.I. Ordway III, J.C. McCall, G.C. Bucher), McGraw Hill Book Company, pp241-260
  5. R. René (1992) NASA Mooned America!, self-published
  6. J. Windley, radiation and the van allen belts, Clavius Moon Base
  7. D. Lambert (2003) Statement from James Van Allen on radiation effects, CosmoQuest forum (formerly Bad Astronomy & Universe Today forum)
  8. AE-8/AP-8 Radiation Belt Models, CCMC/NASA
  9. C. Poivey (2002) Radiation Hardness Assurance for Space Systems, NASA/IEEE NSREC 2002 short course
  10. P. Buhler, L. Desorgher, A. Zehnder, E. Daly, L. Adams (1996) Observations of the low Earth orbit radiation environment from Mir Radiation Measurements, Vol. 26, No. 6, pp917-921
  11. J. White (2016) MoonFaker: Radiation Reloaded, YouTube
  12. P. Collier, J. Collier (1997) New Research Claims ‘Van Allen Belts’ Would Have Cooked Apollo Astronauts, Media Bypass, October 1997, p58, p60
  13. J.A. Van Allen, L.A. Frank (1959) Radiation Around the Earth to a Radial Distance of 107,400 km, Nature, Vol. 183, pp430–434
  14. A.J. McDonald, J.R. Hansen (2009) Truth, Lies, and O-rings: Inside the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster, University Press of Florida
  15. R Boisjoly, Roger BoisjolyThe Challenger Disaster, Online Ethics Center For Engineering and Science
  16. Frank Borman, R.J. Serling (1988) Countdown: An Autobiography, W. Morrow Publishing
  17. Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum (2008) An Evening with the Apollo 8 Astronauts (Annual John H. Glenn Lecture Series), YouTube

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