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Father of the Chinese
space program dies


Posted: November 2, 2009

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The father of China's space and strategic rocket program Tsien Hsue-shen, who worked initially on U.S. rocket development, helped bring Werner Von Braun to the U.S. then was wrongly deported back to China in the 1950s for alleged ties with communist China, died in Beijing Oct. 31 at age 98. (He has also gone by the name of Qian Xuesen.)

His death comes ironically at the same time President Barack Obama is ready to visit China where increased U.S./ Chinese space cooperation will be discussed with likely references to Tsien's contributions to both countries as a common focal point.

As a prelude to Obama's visit, major new space cooperation projects have been discussed at lower levels. These include U. S. support for eventual Chinese Shenzhou flights to the International Space Station. But the initial level of new cooperation is likely to be far less ambitious.

It is a fluke of history, however, that the U.S. and China have reached the point where such cooperative talks are possible, just as the person who could have brought it about earlier has passed from the scene.

Once deported back to China, Tsien single-handedly built a national space and rocketry program "from the technology base of an agrarian society," according to an Orlando Sentinel history of Tsien written by Mike Cabbage as part of research he did when accompanying this editor to China in 2001. Cabbage is now a public affairs officer with NASA.

In a remarkable story of the cold war spanning nine decades, Tsien is celebrated by China as the father of its space and missile developments and also by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the California Institute of Technology as one of the founders of JPL and key other U.S. facilities.

U.S. officials now deplore his treatment by ham-handed U.S. officials that sent him back to China where his missile and space systems continue to influence relations between the two countries.

In space historian Mark Wade's account, "Tsien was born in 1911 in Hangzhou, the son of a government official. He was educated at Shanghai Jiaotong University, and, in 1935, with the help of a scholarship, went first to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US, and then, a year later, to the Institute of Technology (Caltech), where he was to be awarded his doctorate, and be based for the next two decades.

"After earning his Ph.D. in 1939, Tsien joined the Caltech faculty."

"He was very impressed by people who could really perform at a high level," said Iris Chang, author of a Tsien biography titled Thread of the Silkworm. "He was very dismissive of those who couldn't make the cut."

Beyond the work of Robert Goddard in the 1930s, rocket research advanced in the U.S. under a group who sought help from Theodore von Karman at the California Institute of Technology.

The group, included Jack Parsons who would later form Aerojet Corp. and Tsien, who along with others involved were dubbed "the suicide squad" as they began rocket engine tests at Arroyo Seco northwest of Pasadena, Calif.. This planted the seeds for JPL to become preeminent in space and rocketry.

"The Army created a rocket-development branch in 1943, and the next year von Karman, Tsien and another colleague won a contract to design some of the first long-range ballistic missiles," says Cabbage.

At the end of World War II, Tsien was sent to Europe to debrief German rocket scientists for transfer to the U.S. And it was at one of these meetings that Tsien met Von Braun. Unbeknownst to either, the future head of China's space program was debriefing the future head of America's space program and the man that would land men on the Moon.

But lurking in Tsien's past was trouble that would get him sent back to China, never to return.

As Cabbage notes "to graduate student Tsien Hsue-shen, the gatherings at Sidney Weinbaum's California home seemed like typical American parties of the 1930s -- not meetings of Professional Unit 122, Pasadena Section of the U.S. Communist Party."

"There were spirited political discussions, music, games and good conversation. The parties provided a needed break every few weeks from the academic grind endured by the 26-year-old aeronautics whiz and two dozen or so Caltech colleagues. Tsien came for the music. He was learning to play the flute," says Cabbage

"More than a decade later, those all-but-forgotten get-togethers would turn Tsien's life upside down," he said.

According to the Cabbage study, "The evidence presented against him during the deportation hearings was, to be charitable, underwhelming. No witness could say for sure whether Tsien had been a member of the Communist Party. There were no official party records connecting him to the group. The case hinged on a single membership list in the handwriting of police investigators, who claimed they had copied the names from other documents. Tsien steadfastly maintained his innocence.

"Nevertheless, immigration officials ruled Tsien had lied on the immigration form when he re-entered the country in 1947 and was a communist subject to expulsion. The government spent the next four years debating what to do with him. Finally, Tsien was notified in 1955 that he was going back to China. His departure was part of a negotiated swap of Chinese scientists in the United States for Americans captured during the Korean War and held in China.

In 1955, Tsien was allowed to return to China. "Five years of virtual house arrest had turned Tsien's American dream into a nightmare," says Cabbage.

Frustrated and increasingly bitter about his treatment, Tsien was more than ready to go. One can only imagine his resentment as he, his wife and their two small children -- both U.S. citizens by birth -- boarded a ship at Los Angeles harbor for the three-week trip to China. Before leaving, Tsien addressed the horde of reporters who packed the dock:

"I do not plan to come back. I have no reason to come back. I have thought about it for a long time. I plan to do my best to help the Chinese people build up their nation to where they can live with dignity and happiness."

"China fully understood the windfall it was getting," says Cabbage. "Tsien returned to a conquering hero's welcome. He spent the first few weeks touring the country and reaping accolades. Almost overnight, the government handed him the reins of China's fledgling aerospace and missile programs. He quickly went to work building the industry almost from scratch in a society still living with one foot in the Middle Ages.

"There were no research facilities. No modern manufacturing plants. Not even Chinese textbooks in many crucial subjects. More than anyone, Tsien changed that. Four months after his return, he founded Beijing's Institute of Mechanics, specializing in critical defense needs, including missiles, atomic energy, computers and electronics.

Those who worked for Tsien regarded him with almost religious awe," Cabbage says.

"Everyone always wanted him to give us lectures," said He Ling Shu, a professor at the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics. "As the first person to start our country's rocket industry, he was very, very famous."

Progress was slow. But Tsien's return to China did nothing to mellow his perfectionism and impatience with mediocrity.

"He was so far ahead of us, we couldn't even comprehend how far at first," said Luan Enjie, the head of China's National Space Administration. when we interviewed him in Beijing in 2001. He would later head the Chang'e project, China's first lunar mission spacecraft development

According to Cabbage, "Tsien had access to China's top leaders, including Mao. That meant access to funding. But there was a price. Friends in America -- who almost universally remember Tsien as someone who shunned politics -- heard from him less and less. However, his statements began appearing in China's state-run media more and more.

"As long as we are able to act in accordance with Chairman Mao's directives," Tsien was quoted as saying, "victory will surely belong to us."

In 1958, 20 years after a naive young graduate student first played the flute at leftist Sidney Weinbaum's parties; Tsien officially became a member of the Communist Party. He was elected to China's rubber-stamp national legislature later that year.

With Tsien's guidance and help from Soviet scientists, China's leap from developing backwater to strategic missile power was stunningly swift. The country officially entered the Space Age in 1960 by launching a Chinese-built knockoff of a Soviet booster.

Tsien developed China's early ballistic missiles that could deliver its atomic weapons. The same CZ launcher class is still used to launch China's satellite and now its astronauts on Shenzhou spacecraft that resemble the Soviet Soyuz.

As the cold war eased, Tsien sometimes hosted old friends from JPL but he never returned to the U.S. Largely bedridden in later years he lived out his life in a guarded apartment complex for top Chinese leaders.