How did Qian Xuesen contribute to American and Chinese space programs?

With China’s space program becoming more impressive every year, there is growing talk about competition in space between Beijing and Washington. In this context, an interesting historical figure is Qian Xuesen. He was an engineer who played an important role in developing both countries’ space sectors. To learn more about Qian, we spoke to Zuoyue Wang, a Professor of History at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. Professor Wang spoke about Qian’s life and experiences in both countries. He also shared his thoughts about what Qian’s life teaches us about the connection between international relations and the space sector.

What role did Qian Xuesen play in the space sectors of both the United States and China?

Qian Xuesen (aka Hsue-shen Tsien) played a contributing role in the American space program and a foundational one in the Chinese space program.

Born in China in 1911, Qian majored in railroad engineering at Jiaotong University in Shanghai but switched to aeronautics in 1935 when he came to the United States to pursue graduate studies. He earned a master’s degree in 1936 from MIT and then a PhD in 1939 from Caltech under Theodore von Kármán, a world authority in aeronautics and astronautics. Qian stayed at Caltech during World War II, collaborating with von Kármán on critical research. He worked with Frank Malina and others in the so-called “Suicide Squad” to launch the first American space rockets. He helped found the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). He also assisted von Kármán in Washington with planning Air Force research and development. Qian was approved for security clearance despite his Chinese citizenship.

In 1945, Qian joined a von Kármán-led group to travel to Europe to investigate advances in aerospace technology in Germany and elsewhere. He later helped von Kármán write and edit a multi-volume study called Toward New Horizons(1947), which became a blueprint for US aerospace policy. Qian served as a founding member of the Air Force’s Scientific Advisory Board, which was chaired by von Kármán. Qian taught at MIT from 1946 to 1949 but returned in 1949 to Caltech as its Robert Goddard Professor of Jet Propulsion.

In 1950, due to suspicions that he had joined the American Communist Party (CPUSA) in the late 1930s, his security clearance was revoked and his request to return to China was denied. He was detained for two weeks, released on bail, and put on suspended deportation. He continued to teach at Caltech and published an important book titled Engineering Cybernetics. Eventually, he left with his family for China in 1955 as a result of diplomatic negotiations in Geneva. In recent years, scholars have found new evidence to confirm that Qian did join the CPUSA for a few months around 1939. There is no evidence, though, that he ever served as an intelligence agent for China or the Soviet Union.

In retrospect, Qian’s contributions to the American space program were substantial and extensive. He carried out significant technical studies by himself, with von Kármán, and with others. He pioneered efforts to launch rockets with the Suicide Squad and contributed to JPL, Caltech, and the Air Force. Moreover, he trained hundreds of scientists and engineers – military and civilian – who were involved in America’s aerospace efforts for decades after he left for China. He inspired many other immigrant scientists and engineers in the United States, such as Chang-lin Tien from Taiwan. Tien’s research contributed to the design of space shuttles and he became the first Asian American chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley.

Upon his return to China in 1955, Qian was initially appointed as director of the Institute of Mechanics in the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. Shortly thereafter, he was tapped to spearhead China’s burgeoning missile program as director of the Fifth Academy in the Chinese Ministry of Defense. In this and other similar positions, Qian led China’s missile and space programs technically and organizationally for the next several decades. In addition, he played a central role in making China’s pivotal 12-year science and technology plan in 1956 – the plan covered all areas of science and technology, especially those relevant to defense.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Qian successfully advocated prioritizing rockets over aircraft in military aerospace policy. His technical direction, coordination, and participation in the 1960s helped China successfully develop its first missiles, some of which were based on Soviet models and assistance. He helped China conduct the first test of an atomic bomb delivered by a medium range missile in 1966. He furthermore contributed to China launching its first satellite in 1970, deploying its first nuclear-powered submarine in 1974, and testing its first intercontinental ballistic missile, the Dongfeng 5, in 1980.

In his later years, Qian was also credited in China for providing critical support of the human space flight program when it faced cutbacks. The program culminated in 2003 with the astronaut Yang Liwei orbiting around Earth aboard the spacecraft Shenzhou 5. More broadly, Qian continued to participate in Chinese science and technology policymaking. He was especially influential in his promotion of systems engineering in aerospace projects and other areas until his death in 2009. Many criticized Qian for his support of the disastrous Great Leap Forward campaign in 1958 and the government’s crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in 1989. Despite this, Qian is widely regarded as a pioneering, foundational, and indispensable figure in the history of China’s space program.

Are there any aspects of Qian Xuesen’s life that you think are commonly misunderstood or underappreciated?

One of the common misconceptions regarding Qian Xuesen has been that he helped make Chinese (and even American) atomic bombs. There is no evidence that he did this. Even though he was, as mentioned above, involved in the 1966 test of a missile-carried atomic bomb, he was responsible for the missile side of the test, not the warhead. There is also no evidence that he ever took part in the US Manhattan Project during World War II to make atomic bombs.

What does Qian Xuesen’s life teach us about international relations in the space sector?

Qian Xuesen’s long and complicated life and career in China and the United States indicates that, in the modern era, science, technology, and international politics are inevitably intertwined. It demonstrates to us the value and contributions of immigrant scientists and engineers to American science and technology. It also shows how China’s scientific and technological advances have benefited from international exchanges and the transnational movements of scientists. Qian witnessed and helped make possible many dramatic technological advances that have the potential for both civilian applications and for military destructiveness. I think that above all, his life should serve as a reminder to us that we, as a human race, need to learn to work together and solve our political differences peacefully. Only by harnessing the power of human ingenuity in this way can we deal with global problems – e.g. nuclear weapons, climate change, and pandemics – that threaten us all.