America may not have won World War II and landed on the moon later if not for the contributions of a brilliant Chinese scientist named Qian Xuesen. Fearing communist presence after the war, the U.S., however, deported Qian to China, clueless that he would eventually spearhead programs that would target American troops and eventually propel China into space.
Born to well-educated parents in 1911, it was evident from an early age that Qian had superior intellect. He graduated at the top of his class at Shanghai Jiao Tong University and won a scholarship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Qian arrived in Boston in 1935. He eventually moved to the California Institute of Technology (CalTech) to study under Hungarian aeronautical engineer Theodore von Karman, one of the field’s most influential at the time. It was in CalTech when Qian became a member of a group of innovators called Suicide Squad, which aimed to build a rocket on campus. They earned their nickname, however, due to botched experiments involving volatile chemicals. Just before World War II, the U.S. military, which had been paying for research into jet propulsion systems, caught wind of the Suicide Squad. In 1943, the Jet Propulsion Lab was established under von Karman — and Qian was at its core. Qian, a national of the Republic of China (ROC; now Taiwan) — then a U.S. ally — was given security clearance to work on classified weapons research. At the end of the war, he was among the world’s leading experts in jet propulsion, even flying to Germany as a lieutenant colonel to gather intelligence from Nazi engineers. Unfortunately, Qian’s American career faltered when Mao Zedong established the communist People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949. Chinese nationals were then seen as a threat to the U.S. The FBI accused Qian of being a communist based on a 1938 document, which showed that he had attended a social gathering of the Pasadena Communist Party. He denied being a member, but research proved that he joined the group with JPL co-founder Frank Malina, who was also part of the Suicide Squad. Qian’s membership was more inspired by anti-racism than Marxism, however. For instance, they campaigned against the segregation of the local Pasadena swimming pool. Despite the absence of evidence that he actually spied for the PRC, Qian was put on house arrest for five years. In 1955, President Eisenhower deported him to China. Qian left America by boat with his wife and two U.S.-born children. He vowed never to return again. The scientist arrived as a promising talent in China. However, he was not immediately welcomed into the CCP, since his wife was the daughter of a ROC leader. Qian was admitted to the CCP in 1958, later serving on its Central Committee.
In the following years, he oversaw the launch of the first Chinese satellite into space — and a multitude of other projects that laid the foundations of China’s Lunar Exploration Program. In a slap of irony, a missile program Qian helped develop produced weapons that were fired back at the U.S. These were silkworm missiles fired at Americans in the Gulf War of 1991, as well as the USS Mason by Huti rebels in Yemen in 2016. “So there’s this odd circularity. The US expelled this expertise, and it has come back to bite them,” said Fraser Macdonald, author of “Escape from Earth: A Secret History of the Space Rocket,” according to BBC News.
Despite the turnaround of his life, Qian reportedly remained fond of the American people. In 2002, Frank Marble, a CalTech colleague, stated that Qian had “lost faith in the American government” but “always had very warm feelings for the American people,” according to The New York Times. Qian died as an accomplished scientist at the age of 98 in Beijing. He has since been revered as a hero in China. Feature Images via CCTV