Remembering a Former Caltech Rocket Scientist and the Founder of China’s Space Program

Qian Xuesen has died at 98; he helped found Caltech's Jet Propulsion Laboratory before being deported as a suspected Communist
Left: A Chinese Long-March 4-B rocket blasts off on Nov. 6, 2004. Right: Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visits Qian Xuesen on August 2, 2008. Xinhua

One can only imagine how history might have played out if the United States had not deported a Chinese-born Caltech rocket scientist on suspicion of being a Communist in 1955. Qian Xuesen first fought his deportation, but later accepted his fate and went on to become the founder of China’s missile and space programs. His death this past Sunday comes as China broadens its space exploration efforts to become a potential challenger to a troubled U.S. space program, or perhaps a partner.

Qian Xuesen came to the United States to study aeronautical engineering at MIT and Caltech. He helped the U.S. military develop jet-assisted takeoff technology during World War II, and became the founding director of Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The United States even sent Xuesen to Germany to help interrogate Nazi scientists, including famed rocket scientist Wernher von Braun who went on to help found the U.S. space program.

Colleagues and scientific peers thought Xuesen a genius. But then the FBI charged him with being a secret Communist and arrested him on charges of subversive activity. The Los Angeles Times notes that no classified documents were ever found on Xuesen’s person, and that his Caltech colleagues stood by him as he rejected the accusations.

Xuesen eventually submitted to the pressure and decided to return to China, as part of an exchange for 11 American airmen captured during the Korean War. He became a Chinese national hero, and oversaw an accelerated development of Long March rockets that would form the foundation for China’s missile and space programs.

“It was the stupidest thing this country ever did,” said Dan Kimball, a former Navy Secretary, in a later Aviation Week interview. “He was no more a Communist than I was, and we forced him to go.”

China has since become the third nation to launch humans into space, along with Russia and the United States. It also became the third nation to send a human being out on a spacewalk last year, and has announced plans to launch a manned lunar mission and a military space station.

It’s certainly nice to see more nations join the space club, and China certainly earned its place. But the United States might contemplate what could have happened during the early days of the space race with yet another rocket genius.

For now, U.S. and Chinese relations continue to display a certain frostiness when it comes to the space race . A People’s Liberation Army Air Force Commander Xu Qiliang told Xinhua of China’s intent to develop offensive and defensive space capabilities, and that “only power could protect peace.” His remarks came on the same day that Qian Xuesen passed away.

[via Los Angeles Times]