Honorary Unsubscribe

Randy Cassingham’s Honorary Unsubscribe Recognizes the Unknown, the Forgotten and the Often Obscure People who Had an Impact on Our Lives

Rocket scientist

Qian Xuesen

Born in China, after getting his college degree Qian came to the United States for graduate school, attending MIT, and teaching at MIT and Caltech. At the latter, he helped establish a testing ground in a rural arroyo for a new technology for the U.S. Army: the Jet-Assisted Takeoff thruster, or JATO rocket. The testing ground, the Daniel and Florence Guggenheim Jet Propulsion Center at Caltech, is now known as the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and is now the largest (in terms of employees) NASA field center. It is still run by Caltech. Caltech’s pioneering rocketry professor Theodore von Karman called Qian an “undisputed genius.” At the end of World War II, it was Qian who went to Germany to interrogate German rocketry engineers, and he recruited Wernher von Braun, who went on to help the U.S. develop its own rocketry program, including the Saturn rockets that powered the Apollo program. But in 1950, during the “Red Scare” paranoia over “communists” in the U.S., Qian was accused of being a communist. He denied any interest in politics, but was stripped of his security clearance and imprisoned on Terminal Island by the U.S. government without charges or evidence against him. After five years in limbo, he accepted deportation as a “swap” for 11 U.S. pilots captured in the Korean War. Once back in China, Qian — just like Wernher von Braun — helped the country develop its own rocket program, and became known as the “father” of China’s space and missile programs, designing ICBMs, the Silkworm anti-ship missile, weather satellites, and even their manned space program, which successfully completed an orbital flight in 2003. In other words, the U.S. threw away one of the top space geniuses in the world, and that is why China was able to make such strides in its space program. “It was the stupidest thing this country ever did,” said former U.S. Navy Secretary Dan Kimball. “He was no more a Communist than I was, and we forced him to go.” Caltech stood behind him too, naming him its “Distinguished Alumni” of 1979, but he never returned to the U.S. Qian died October 31 in Beijing; he was 98.

From This is True for 1 November 2009


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