Qian Xuesen: Scientist and pioneer of China's missile and space programmes

Qian Xuesen was a rocket scientist who was regarded as the father of China's missile and space technology programme. After more than 20 years of research in the United States he was deported from his adopted country for alleged espionage and went on to help his homeland, China, develop the atomic bomb, enter the space race and become a super power.

Qian, also known as Tsien Hsue-shen, was born on 11 December 1911 in Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang province, about 180km southwest of Shanghai. The family moved to Beijing shortly after when his father became Minister of Education. In 1934, Qian graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering from Shanghai Jiao Tong University. While on an internship at Nanchang Air Force Base he won a scholarship to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where a year later he was awarded his Masters in aeronautical engineering. He then moved to the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) to continue his PhD studies. He was duly awarded his doctorate in 1939.

At Caltech Qian caught the eye of Theodore von Kármán, Professor of Aeronautics and Director of the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory, who later described him as an "undisputed genius". He started teaching at MIT and Caltech, and still only in his 20s, became involved in experiments in rocketry, a field which at that time was barely taken seriously. This, changed with the Second World War, and the US Army Air Corps enlisted Caltech in developing what became known as "jet-assisted take-off" for its bombers.

Germany's V1 and V2 rockets forced Caltech to accelerate its work, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory was established with Qian as a section leader. This led to the Private A, the first US solid-propellant missile to perform successfully.

Qian served on the Scientific Advisory Board that advised the US military during and after the war as well as working at the Pentagon on reports about the latest classified technology and its implications for the future. He also contributed to the Manhattan Project, which developed the first atomic bomb, and in 1949 he was made the first director of the Daniel and Florence Guggenheim Jet Propulsion Centre at Caltech.

After the war Qian was sent to Germany as part of the technical mission to interrogate Nazi scientists. He interviewed the rocket scientists Wernher von Braun and Rudolph Hermann; as the trade magazine Aviation Week put it in 2007, naming Qian its Person of the Year, "No one then knew that the father of the future US space program [Braun] was being quizzed by the father of the future Chinese space program."

In September 1947, Qian married the opera singer Jiang Ying in Shanghai. He returned to the US to teach at MIT and was followed by his wife. They had two children. In 1949, he described his idea for a space plane, a winged rocket credited as an inspiration for the late 1950s Dyna-Soar project, which would influence the development of the US space shuttle.

It appeared that Qian was destined for a fruitful career; but then, in 1950, Senator McCarthy led a crusade across America against supposed Communist infiltration in the State Department, the military and higher education. With China now Communist, following the overthrow of the Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek in 1949, Qian was suspected of being a sympathiser and in June 1950 found himself under scrutiny, his security clearance revoked.

With his application for US citizenship turned down and his work limited, he applied to leave the US but was detained. He always denied any Communist leanings and rejected the accusation that he was a spy. After five years of surveillance and partial house arrest he was allowed to return to China in 1955, in an apparent exchange for 11 US airmen captured during the Korean War. Later, Grant Cooper, Qian's lawyer, said, "That the government permitted this genius, this scientific genius, to be sent to Communist China to pick his brains is one of the tragedies of this century." This sentiment was shared by many in the scientific fraternity.

It was a huge coup for the Communist regime and Qian was welcomed back a hero. He set about his work as if wanting to make up for lost time and soon headed the Chinese ballistic missile development programme and established The Institute of Mechanics in Beijing, working as its director. He began recruiting his former students and training Chinese engineers in the techniques he had learned in the US; he started a library and taught people how to research aeronautics, as his Chinese colleagues knew little about rocket propulsion. "We recognised that the pressing problem was to teach, not immediately to do independent research," he wrote.

Although not a Communist before his return, Qian joined the Party in 1958. In the same year, he finalised plans for what was to become the Dongfeng missile, launched in 1964. Through his work, and with help from the Soviet Union, China made great strides and tested its own nuclear bomb in October 1964. Qian's programme was also responsible for the Silkworm missile. The first Chinese ballistic missiles were based on Soviet R-2 (SS-2) design, itself based on the German V-2 rocket.

Spurred on by Qian, China built progressively larger designs, including the Dongfeng 4 ballistic missile, whose three-stage space launch version, Long March 1, put the first Chinese satellite into orbit, in 1970. With the ability to construct nuclear weapons China had become a super-power, no longer fearing the Soviet Union or US.

Mao's Cultural Revolution (1965-68) had little or no affect on Qian and his fellow scientists as they were in key national strategic areas. Qian went from strength to strength, helping establish the Department of Mechanics of the University of Science & Technology of China. It was designed to provide the high-level personnel necessary for the development of the economy, defence and education in science and technology.

Qian retired in 1991. Recognition of his early work came from his former colleagues at Caltech in 1979 when he was given the Distinguished Alumni Award; after some time he eventually received his award. China launched its manned space programme in 1992 and used Qian's research as the basis for the Long March rocket which launched Shenzhou V, China's first manned space mission, in October 2003. The now frail Qian watched it on television from his hospital bed.

The American author Iris Chang, whose 1995 biography Thread of the Silkworm remains a leading source for information about Qian, wrote, "It was he who initiated and oversaw programs to develop some of China's earliest missiles, the first Chinese satellite, missile tracking and control telemetry systems, and the infamous Silkworm [anti-ship] missile." The head of China's lunar programme, Luan Enjie, once said, "He's the father of our space industry. It's difficult to say where we would be without him."

Martin Childs

Qian Xuesen, rocket scientist: born Hangzhou 11 December 1911; 1947 married Jiang Ying (one son, one daughter); died Beijing 31 October 2009.

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