Tsien Hsue-shen (1911-) Father of Chinese spaceflight. Leading rocket theoretician, expelled from USA as Red in 1955. Created China's space industry from scratch, results: China's first ballistic missiles, 1960s; first satellite, 1970; and first astronaut, 2003.
Tsien Hsue-shen (Qian Xuesen), was the father of Chinese rocketry and spaceflight. A pre-eminent rocket scientist in America, he was driven from the country during the Red Scare of the 1950's. He single-handedly built a national space and rocketry program from the technology base of an agrarian society.
Tsien was born in Hangzhou, China in 1911. A brilliant student, he went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on a Boxer Rebellion Scholarship in 1935. Becoming a protege of the legendary Theodor von Karman, Tsien was the leading theoretician in rocket and high-speed flight theory in the United States. He was instrumental in the founding of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, and collaborated closely with the newly-founded Aerojet Corporation in the development of the first JATO and sounding rockets built in the United States.
CHINA'S NEW FRONTIER: U.S. threw out man who put China in space
Orlando Sentinel ^ | December 11, 2001 | Michael Cabbage | Sentinel space editor
Posted on Tuesday, December 11, 2001 4:21:41 AM by Cincinatus' Wife
BEIJING -- To Chinese 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.
More than a decade later, those all-but-forgotten get-togethers would turn Tsien's life upside down.
McCarthyism was in full bloom throughout the United States. And no one, not even one of the country's most brilliant rocket scientists -- an Air Force colonel and a founder of what would become NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory -- was above suspicion. Tsien's case set off a chain of events that would forever change the global balance of power.
FBI agents finally got around to confronting Tsien in June 1950. The evidence against him was a 1938 Communist Party membership roster that listed his name. Tsien's denials meant little. His security clearance to work on classified military projects was revoked.
Tsien raised official eyebrows again two months later. After receiving a message from his ailing father, he attempted to leave for an extended visit to China. Customs agents seized eight cases of personal notes and papers Tsien planned to take with him to continue his work while abroad for a year. Despite his application a few months earlier to become a U.S. citizen, authorities weren't convinced Tsien was coming back. Some of the papers appeared sensitive. They refused to let him go.
The proud Tsien was arrested at home in front of his family several days later and jailed for two weeks by immigration officials. After his release on bail, he was forbidden from traveling outside Los Angeles County. The charge: He failed to divulge to authorities his membership in the Communist Party when he re-entered the United States in 1947 after an earlier visit to China. Hearings to deport Tsien began under the Subversive Control Act of 1950.
Tsien and his friends never were accused of doing anything more serious than discussing left-wing politics.
"All you have to do is witness one of these hearings to know how ridiculous they are," said Frank Marble, a Caltech professor and friend of Tsien's who attended every hearing. "Justice was not one of the objects. There was no credible evidence."
The government, however, had a dilemma. While immigration officials were trying to kick out Tsien, a State Department directive forbade aliens whose technical expertise might jeopardize national security from leaving the country.
It took five years to resolve the issue. Undersecretary of the Navy Dan Kimball, a friend of Tsien's, was adamantly against deportation.
"I'd rather shoot him than let him leave the country," Kimball joked to others. "He knows too much that's valuable to us. He's worth five divisions anywhere."
Little did Kimball know that Tsien would one day be regarded as the father of China's space industry.
Destined for brilliance
Tsien -- whose given name, Hsue-shen, means "study to be wise" -- was a natural, one of those students who always instantly got it.
The son of a teacher, he was born in Hangzhou, China, in 1911, the same month the 2-century-old Qing Dynasty collapsed. After a stellar high-school career in Beijing, Tsien graduated first in his class from Shanghai's Jiaotong University in 1934 with a degree in mechanical engineering. He was going to build locomotives.
Tsien, however, became obsessed instead with machines that fly. China had little to offer in the infant field of aeronautics, so he set his sights abroad. Tsien competed against the best and brightest in China's universities for a coveted scholarship to attend graduate school in the United States -- and won. By 1936, he had earned a master's degree in aeronautical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and then enrolled in the California Institute of Technology's doctoral program.
Caltech's star-studded faculty included Theodore von Karman, a Hungarian immigrant dubbed "the father of the supersonic age" and considered one of the world's leading authorities in the field. Von Karman took the young Chinese student under his wing. The hard-working Tsien wasted little time making the transition from von Karman's student to colleague.
"Von Karman regarded him as one of the best students he had ever had," said William Pickering, another Caltech pioneer who guided creation of the first U.S. satellite.
After earning his Ph.D. in 1939, Tsien joined the Caltech faculty. His students remember a taskmaster who could devastate pupils and colleagues alike with withering critiques. His impatience with those who didn't measure up intellectually was mythic. Legend has it Tsien's unhappiness with one class prompted him to write a completely new textbook that even the most brilliant students could barely comprehend.
"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."
Tsien's interest in flying machines had spread to rockets by the late 1930s. He occasionally joined a group of other Caltech grad students nicknamed the Suicide Squad on trips to test primitive rocket engines in a canyon several miles from campus. What began as a hobby attracted attention from the Pentagon after the U.S. entered World War II.
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. After standard checks, Tsien had received a high-level security clearance in 1942. The group's work took place at the newly formed Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.
> As World War II wound down, Tsien was made a colonel in the U.S. Army Air Forces and sent to Europe in 1945. His mission: Size up the German V-2 rocket program developed by Hitler's Third Reich.
There, he met and interviewed young Wernher von Braun, the V-2 project's technical director who one day would become the visionary behind the Saturn V rocket that put America on the moon. During their meeting, Tsien asked von Braun to put down on paper German breakthroughs and future space goals. The resulting report is credited with helping inspire development of the first U.S. satellites.
After the war, Tsien became the youngest full professor on the faculty at MIT. During a 1947 visit to see his family in China, he met Jiang Ying, a glamorous aristocrat who studied music in Germany and was one of China's most celebrated young sopranos. Her father -- a military adviser for Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist government -- was helping wage a civil war aimed at crushing Mao Tse Tung's communist rebels.
The couple married later that year and moved back to America. When Tsien re-entered the United States in Honolulu, he reflexively answered "no" to a question on an immigration form asking whether he had ever belonged to a group advocating overthrow of the U.S. government.
Mao's communist insurgents finally won the bitter war in China and took power in April 1949. A world away, Tsien returned to Caltech's faculty two months later as more than just one of the planet's foremost experts on aeronautics.
He was the living embodiment of the American dream. Tsien had it all: a prestigious, well-paying job. A glamorous wife and growing family. Lots of friends and dinner parties. A house in the suburbs.
Tsien decided to make it official in mid-1949. He applied to become a U.S. citizen.
Return to China
By 1955, five years of virtual house arrest had turned Tsien's American dream into a nightmare.
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.
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. 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.
"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, current head of the China National Space Administration.
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.
Rise and fall
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.
Four years later, China stunned the West when it detonated an atomic bomb. Tsien was responsible for developing intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of delivering Beijing's new atomic arsenal around the globe. China successfully tested its first ICBM in 1971. By 1980, China had the ability to rain nuclear bombs on Tsien's former home in Southern California.
Unfortunately for Tsien, his scientific successes were followed by political defeats. The space program was paralyzed in the late 1960s after Mao unleashed the Cultural Revolution to purge the country of "anti-revolutionary, bourgeois" thinking. Technical schools were closed. Scientists were beaten and sent to rural farms for re-education. Even Tsien was briefly stripped of his authority and reduced to a common worker.
After Mao's death in 1976, Tsien backed Mao's widow and the so-called "Gang of Four" in the power struggle that ensued. When Deng Xiaoping -- whom Tsien had publicly criticized -- rose to leadership two years later, Tsien fell from grace and was reduced to little more than a figurehead. He staged a minor comeback in 1989, when he took a leading role in denouncing the pro-democracy demonstrators who were crushed in Tiananmen Square. The aging Tsien was awarded the title of "State Scientist of Outstanding Contribution," China's highest scientific honor, in 1991.
"The transformation I see is from a pure scientist to a scientific politician," author Chang said. "I don't know if anyone can really judge him because we have no idea the kind of pressure he was under."
Today, Tsien has become something of a recluse, his mobility limited by deteriorating pelvic bones. His wife no longer gives music lessons at their home but still plays the piano to satisfy his love of music. His son Yucon, a computer technologist who earned his master's degree at Caltech in 1988, lives in the same apartment building. His daughter, Yung-jen, returned to her native United States and in recent years has worked as a medical technician in Virginia.
Despite his advancing age, Tsien still occasionally holds court with China's aerospace leaders in his Beijing apartment building. One of his neighbors is China space administrator Luan.
"He has been in an advisory position for a long time," said Frank Marble, a Caltech professor and Tsien's closest friend in America. "It has been some years since he has done any active research himself. But his opinions are highly sought and very often followed."
Marble, who at 83 still goes to work every day at Caltech, has been in regular contact with Tsien since 1982. Tsien repeatedly has turned down invitations to visit America. But Marble traveled to Beijing last week to participate in a symposium Monday in Tsien's honor. Today, the old friends will celebrate Tsien's 90th birthday.
Spy or victim?
Almost a half-century after Tsien's return to China, the debate still rages: Was Tsien a Chinese spy?
A 1999 House panel headed by U.S. Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calif., said yes. The committee's investigation of past and present Chinese espionage portrays Tsien as the prototype for communist spies sent to America to steal classified information. The charges against him, the report concludes, "are presumed to be true."
The evidence, however, is riddled with holes. The report accused Tsien of gathering information on the Titan rocket program, a feat that would have been difficult considering the project didn't begin in earnest until after Tsien had left the United States. That and a variety of other factual errors led many to conclude the investigation was little more than a partisan political statement.
Most of Tsien's former Caltech colleagues laugh at the notion he was a communist spy. They offer several reasons: Chinese communists came to power just weeks before Tsien's arrest. His father-in-law was a high-ranking military adviser in the nationalist government Mao overthrew. Tsien had applied to become a U.S. citizen. No credible evidence ever was made public to support the charges.
"He was just a hard-working scientist," said Pickering, a former director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "I honestly think he intended to visit his father and come back here [in 1950] -- as he had done before."
"It was one of the greatest tactical errors the United States has ever made," Marble said.
Tsien's colleagues in China likely would agree. They're thankful, however, that history took the turn it did. Most, such as China's current space chief Luan, prefer not to think about the alternative.
"He's the father of our space industry," Luan said. "It's difficult to say where we would be without him."
Michael Cabbage can be reached at email@example.com or 321-639-0522.