But for a twist of history, Qian Xuesen, whose death at age 98 was announced Saturday, might be being remembered as another immigrant rocket scientist who had made a significant contribution to America’s space technology rather than as the father of China’s space program.
After graduating form Jiao Tong University in 1934, Qian studied on a scholarship at at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and later the California Institute of Technology where he obtained a doctorate in 1939. He would be at Caltech for two decades, helping to set up the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and ultimately becoming Goddard Professor. He was regarded as one of the leading rocket scientists in America and had worked on the Manhattan Project to develop an atomic bomb in World War II, but when he applied for U.S. citizenship in the 1950s he fell victim to the McCarthyite anti-communist fever sweeping America at the time and was deported, returning to China in 1955.
Working for the defense ministry, he set up China’s first missile and rocket research institute. His subsequent research helped lead to the successful explosion of China’s first atomic bomb in 1964, to its first man-made satellite in 1970 and to its first manned spacecraft in 2003. (Xinhua‘s obituary.) History’s mischief is the law of unintended consequences.