Space Programme

Chinese genius dies

New light on the “stupidest thing” America ever did

They'd never have made it into orbit without Qian Xuesen

Confrontations in space have tended to be spectacular, although mostly they’ve been of the fictional variety.

You know the type of thing – the well-tested genre of zero gravity battles, highjacked space shuttles and exploding lunar hideouts that feature in films like the James Bond thriller, Moonraker.

Still, Roger Moore may have raised one of his more quizzical eyebrows at remarks made by a Chinese general this week.

The air force general, Xu Qiliang, went on record as saying that the “militarisation of space” was an “historical inevitability”. Xu’s widely broadcast prediction was quickly watered down by Foreign Ministry spokesmen, who insisted that China “upheld the peaceful use of outer space”.

Certainly, the national space programme has been an active one recently. Last year China launched its first lunar probe. Three of its astronauts then completed the country’s first ever spacewalk. The goal is to reach the moon by 2020.

Since the days of Sputnik, space exploration has served as a proxy for international rivalry. Where else can a country’s technological and financial might be better showcased to the wider world? Thus as China embraces its newly achieved international status, its space programme becomes more prominent too.

Little wonder, then, that state media last week penned lavish obituaries to Qian Xuesen, the man dubbed the ‘father’ of China’s space programme, who has died aged 98.

Or as the China Daily eulogised him: “The Genius who helped China reach the stars”. Netizens have been grasping at metaphors too, with references to “the falling of a superstar.”

They should probably be thanking Joe McCarthy too. Qian left his adoptive home of America (to be repatriated to China) following the US senator’s crusade to rid America of ‘Reds’ in the 1950s.

Qian had arrived in the US in 1935, winning a scholarship to MIT, before moving to Caltech, where he eventually became a professor.

He went on to debrief German scientists at the end of World War Two, co-found Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and emerge as one of America’s leading rocket scientists.

McCarthy then accused him of being a Communist spy. Qian suffered five years of house arrest before being swapped in 1955 for US pilots captured in the Korean War.

He was much embittered by his treatment. Qian’s biographer Iris Chang says others agreed that he was treated unjustly. “He was no more a Communist than I was,” reflected former US Navy Secretary Dan Kimball, “It’s the stupidest thing this country ever did”.

Back in China, Qian’s work led directly to the nation’s first homegrown ballistic missile, the Dongfeng 4, and later to the Chang’e spacecraft. “It’s difficult to say where we’d be without him,” concludes Luan Enjie, the head of China’s lunar programme.

As recently as August the nation’s prime minister, Wen Jiabao visited Qian to ask how China could foster leading scientists. Qian’s answer was that innovation best emerges when knowledge of the sciences and the arts is combined. He put his own success down to a marriage of scientific theory with a love of traditional Chinese poetry and calligraphy.

What would Qian have made of General Xu’s comments about militarising space? The provocative remarks were made after he died. One imagines that for the peace-loving scientist that was perhaps for the best.


© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.

Exclusively sponsored by HSBC.

The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.