Qian Xuesen: The Genius Who Pushed China into Space, Lost by America

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In the early 20th century, China was struggling for its existence under the shadow of Western powers and Japan, trying to decolonize, but today it is a major player even in the space race, a global power. That name is so precious in China that there is a museum in Shanghai dedicated to him, with more than 70,000 pieces of artifacts. That name is Qian Xuesen, who was once deported by the United States.

It is well known that NASA leads America’s space program. But little is known that, in addition to American scientists, European scientists fleeing Nazi persecution also led the race. Or that the contribution of black women at NASA is almost never mentioned. The reason behind this is undoubtedly that Americans do not want to portray any minorities, segregated races or competitors as contributing to their success.

There is one exception in particular, who must have been considered to be so damaging to American history that he was declared a national hero in China, while in American history he was completely covered up. That person is Qian Xuesen, who was deported from the United States and declared a national hero in China.

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Qian, who came from a wealthy and reformist family, began to question his degree-laden education in China during the tense period that began with Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in 1932, and by 1935, as a promising student, he set off for America to continue his studies at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) with a scholarship from the American government. However, the education there did not suit Qian, so a year later he moved to Caltech (California Institute of Technology) to study under Theodore von Kármán. Qian, who immediately attracted attention with his calculations in the pre-computer era, secured himself a place in Kármán’s rocket science research group and earned a doctorate in aeronautics from Caltech in 1939.

American interest in aviation during the Nazi era was high. Indeed, the scientific sophistication behind pioneering rockets such as the V1 and V2 in World War II was always a question mark for America. Qian worked in the unit that reported on German rocket systems, and at the end of the war he traveled to Germany as part of operations to capture important scientists and their work who had served Nazi Germany, such as von Braun.

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Until 1949 everything was going well. Until Mao Zedong founded the Communist People’s Republic of China. At a time when the ideologies of Capitalism and Communism were colliding, China was now a country that America looked at with suspicion. Likewise, Chinese citizens were also subjected to the same scrutiny.

During the Cold War, Senator Joseph McCarthy and the FBI insisted on characterizing communists in America as spies and hunting them down. As a matter of fact, there was always a loophole for the Chinese in the country. For Qian, it came in the form of a document showing that he had attended what the FBI characterized as a meeting of the Pasadena Communist Party. At the time, communist parties were more of an invitation to those who opposed the system than an ideology, including those who faced racism in the United States. Although it could not be proven that Qian was a member of the party or that he had any spying connections, this document led to five years of house arrest and then deportation.

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Vowing never to return to the US, Qian returned to China for good and pioneered the establishment of rocket science in China. This involved training China’s first aeronautical engineers, and 15 years after Qian’s return to China, China sent its first rocket into space.

America allowed a scientist it had forcibly deported to lay the foundations for China’s space travel. Radical decisions had radical consequences and paved the road that today paves the way for China and America to become rivals in space and on Earth.

Ali Esen

Istanbul University, Department of Mathematics. Interested in science and technology.

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