Written by Frank Li
In this post, I will present two individuals: Wernher von Braun, the father of the U.S. space program, and Qian Xuesen, the father of China’s space program. Their personal stories tell us a lot about the U.S. and China, such as individuality, politics, and rockets, of course.
1. Wernher von Braun
Here is an excerpt from Wikipedia:
Wernher Magnus Maximilian, Freiherr von Braun (March 23, 1912 – June 16, 1977) was a German and American aerospace engineer and space architect. He was one of the leading figures in the development of rocket technology in Germany during World War II and, subsequently, in the United States. He is credited as being the “Father of Rocket Science”.
In his 20s and early 30s, von Braun was the central figure in the Nazis’ rocket development program, responsible for the design and realization of the V-2 combat rocket during World War II. After the war, he and some select members of his rocket team were taken to the United States as part of the then-secret Operation Paperclip. Von Braun worked on the United States Army intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM) program before his group was assimilated by NASA. Under NASA, he served as director of the newly formed Marshall Space Flight Center and as the chief architect of the Saturn V launch vehicle, the superbooster that propelled the Apollo spacecraft to the Moon. According to one NASA source, he is “without doubt, the greatest rocket scientist in history”. His crowning achievement was to lead the development of the Saturn V booster rocket that helped land the first men on the Moon in July 1969. In 1975 he received the National Medal of Science.
2. Qian Xuesen
Here is an excerpt from Wikipedia:
Qian Xuesen (simplified Chinese: 钱学森; traditional Chinese: 錢學森; pinyin: Qián Xuésēn; Wade–Giles: Ch’ien Hsüeh-sên) (11 December 1911 – 31 October 2009) was a scientist who made important contributions to the missile and space programs of both the United States and People’s Republic of China. The name he used while in the United States was Hsue-Shen Tsien or H.S. Tsien.
During the 1940s Qian was one of the founders of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology. During the Second Red Scare of the 1950s, the United States government accused Qian of having communist sympathies, and he was stripped of his security clearance in 1950. Qian then decided to return to China, but instead was detained at Terminal Island near Los Angeles. After spending 5 years under virtual house arrest, Qian was released in 1955, in exchange for the repatriation of American pilots captured during the Korean War. Notified by U.S. authorities that he was free to go, Qian immediately arranged his departure, leaving for China in September 1955, on the passenger liner SS President Cleveland of American President Lines, via Hong Kong. He returned to lead the Chinese rocket program, and became known as the “Father of Chinese Rocketry” (or “King of Rocketry”).
3. More on Wernher von Braun
Unfortunately for Hitler, the British found out about the V-2 program, and destroyed its mega facility (for R&D, production, and launching) with merciless air bombardment. As a result, Hitler had to move the production underground, which proved to be too little and too late to change the outcome of WWII!
Fortunately for von Braun, the Cold War actually started before WWII ended. As the U.S., the Soviets, and even the British were all after Hitler’s rocket scientists, von Braun deliberately surrendered himself to the U.S. – a wise move! Instead of being prosecuted as a Nazi war criminal, he (and his family) was shipped to the U.S., where von Braun ultimately became the “Father of Rocket Science”.
4. More on Qian Xuesen
Here is a further excerpt from Wikipedia:
In 1943, Qian and two others in the Caltech rocketry group drafted the first document to use the name Jet Propulsion Laboratory; it was a proposal to the Army for developing missiles in response to Germany’s V-2 rocket. This led to the Private A, which flew in 1944, and later the Corporal, the WAC Corporal, and other designs.
After World War II he served under von Kármán as a consultant to the United States Army Air Forces, and commissioned with the assimilated rank of colonel. Von Kármán and Tsien both were sent by the Army to Germany to investigate the progress of wartime aerodynamics research. Qian investigated research facilities and interviewed German scientists including Wernher von Braun and Rudolph Hermann. Von Kármán wrote of Qian, “At the age of 36, he was an undisputed genius whose work was providing an enormous impetus to advances in high-speed aerodynamics and jet propulsion.” The American journal Aviation Week & Space Technology would name Qian its Person of the Year in 2007, and comment on his interrogation of von Braun, “No one then knew that the father of the future U.S. space program was being quizzed by the father of the future Chinese space program.”
During this time, Colonel Qian worked on designing an intercontinental space plane. His work would inspire the X-20 Dyna-Soar, which itself would later influence the development of the American Space Shuttle.
Unfortunately for Qian, he was treated poorly in the anti-communism atmosphere in the early 1950s and persistent racism in the U.S. (e.g. Chinese Immigration and the Chinese Exclusion Acts, Jim Crow laws, and Internment of Japanese Americans). He was sent back to China in 1955 – What a monumental gain for China and a huge loss for the U.S.!
Qian was warmly welcomed back by China, including a dinner with Chairman Mao (pictured below)!
5. Ultimate recognitions
Both von Braun and Qian had monumental achievements that have been well recognized in their respective countries. For example, von Braun appeared on Time’s cover in 1958.
Qian, on the other hand, has a dedicated museum in Shanghai (Museum for father of China’s space program).
What a strange world we live in!
Qian and von Braun were alike in two aspects, at least:
Qian and von Braun were born in the same era, with Qian being three months older.
They both left huge footprints behind in rocket science and more.
They are different in two aspects, at least:
Qian was educated and made his early career in the U.S., an ally to China at the time, while von Braun did the same in Germany, an enemy to the U.S. at the time.
The U.S. sent Colonel (and Professor) Qian back to China, where he peaked his career, while von Braun, a hated Nazi, had a second career in the U.S., where he peaked his career.
Today, many Americans know 1961: Kennedy pledges man on Moon. But few know von Braun was actually the brain behind it to make it happen!
How many Americans know that Qian was von Braun’s equivalent in China (and Qian out-lived von Braun by 32 years)? Furthermore, how many Americans are aware that Qian contributed substantially to the development of 1964: China’s first atomic bomb?
With nuclear bombs and intercontinental missiles sitting on both sides, Qian and von Braun theoretically ensured, around 1970 as shown by the diagram below, that neither China nor the U.S. should even consider starting a war against the other. For more, read: WMDs, Germs, and Economies: Part I.
But will the practice conform to the theory?
History is made by great individuals. Both Wernher von Braun and Qian Xuesen have surely made history!