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Who is Qian Xuesen?

Qian Xuesen was the Father of Chinese Aerospace, helping the nation build its aeronautical technology. But did you know that the great rocket scientist became a historical figure because of the Red Scare in the fifties?

Qian Xuesen was a Chinese rocket scientist and mathematician who was part of the top-secret Manhattan Project. He was accused of being a communist during the Cold War, where he fled back to China to help them create their first atomic bomb.

The Life and Story of Qian Xuesen

Qian Xuesen was born in Shanghai, China, on December 11, 1911. He was the only child of the aristocratic Hangzhou family whose ancestry traces as far back as the founder of the Wu-Yue kingdom, Qian Liu, between 852 to 932. Xuesen came from a wealthy family. His father was an educational reformer and educator, while his mother studied the Confucian classics.

Xuesen won a slot to study railroad engineering at the Jiaotong University in Shanghai. He graduated in 1934 and left for the US the following year to earn a graduate degree in aeronautical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The young scientist gained this opportunity through a Boxer Rebellion Indemnity Scholarship awarded by the US government.

Xuesen left MIT to study under research engineer Theodore von Kármán in the California Institute of Technology in 1963. He was known to complete complex calculations with speed and ease. He became an invaluable part of von Kármán’s group of rocket scientists.

The young scientist earned his doctorate in aeronautics from CalTech in 1939. He attracted the attention of the armed forces. Xuesen helped prepare an analysis of the German rocket program during the second world war. He traveled to Germany as a US army colonel to debrief captured German rocket scientists.

Soon after, he helped create and organize the US long-range rocket research program and was the first successful solid-fueled missile director. In 1949, he became the Robert H. Goddard Professor of Jet Propulsion and served as the Daniel and Florence Guggenheim Jet Propulsion Center director.

The Chinese scientist then went home to China to continue his studies and development of rockets, missiles, and anything aeronautical, leading him to earn his informal title of Father of Chinese Aerospace.

Xuesen retired in 1970 and spent most of his time with music, martial arts, and traditional Chinese philosophy, living in isolation before he passed away on October 31, 2009, in Beijing. (Source: Britannica)

Xuesen’s Exile to China

Xuesen found it difficult to understand American culture. This, together with the scientist’s patriotism, caused his detainment in the 1950s. He was charged with espionage during the Red Scare that swept the nation at the time.

Xuesen, together with his wife and two children, was allowed to return to his country after five years of house arrest after negotiations with the Eisenhower administration. The deal was to release Xuesen in exchange for Americans imprisoned in China.

Upon his return, he was appointed as director of the Fifth Academy of the Chinese Ministry of Defense, training the first generation of revolutionary Chinese aerospace engineers. (Source: Britannica)

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