Qian Xuesen

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Qian Xuesen (Tsien Hsue-shen)
Tsien Hsue-shen.jpg
Born (1911-12-11)December 11, 1911
Hangzhou, China
Died October 31, 2009(2009-10-31) (aged 97)
Beijing, China
Fields Aeronautics
Institutions California Institute of Technology
Alma mater National Chiao Tung University
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
California Institute of Technology
Doctoral advisor Theodore von Kármán
Doctoral students Cheng Chemin
Known for Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)
Spouse Jiang Ying

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 Chinese scientist who made important contributions to the missile and space programs of both the United States and China. The name he used while in the United States was Hsue-Shen Tsien or H.S. Tsien.[1]

During the 1940s Qian was one of the founders of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory[2] 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[3] in 1950. Qian then decided to return to China, but instead was detained at Terminal Island[4] near Los Angeles. After spending 5 years under virtual house arrest,[5] 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.[6] He returned to lead the Chinese rocket program, and became known as the "Father of Chinese Rocketry" (or "King of Rocketry").[7][8]

He is the cousin of the mechanical engineer Hsue-Chu Tsien, and his nephew is the 2008 Nobel Prize in chemistry winner Roger Y. Tsien. Asteroid 3763 Qianxuesen and the ill-fated space ship Tsien in the science fiction novel 2010: Odyssey Two are named after him.

Early life and education

Qian Xuesen (Wade–Giles: Ch'ien Hsüeh-sên) was born in Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang province, 180 km southwest of Shanghai. He left Hangzhou at the age of three, when his father obtained a post in the Ministry of Education in Beijing. Qian graduated from The High School Affiliated to Beijing Normal University, then graduated from Chiao Tung University (now spelled Jiao Tong) in Shanghai in 1934 and received a degree in mechanical engineering, with an emphasis on railroad administration; he then spent an internship at Nanchang Air Force Base. In August 1935 Qian left China on a Boxer Rebellion Indemnity Scholarship to study mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and earned a Master of Science degree from MIT a year later.

While at MIT he was influenced by the methods of American engineering education, and its focus on experimentation. Qian's experiments included the plotting of plot pressures, using mercury filled manometers. (By contrast, most engineers in China at this time were not the "hands on" type; instead, theoretical studies were preferred.) Qian sought a school where his mathematical skills would be appreciated, and went to the California Institute of Technology to pursue his studies under Theodore von Kármán. Qian earned his doctorate from Caltech in 1939 with a thesis on slender body theory at high speeds. He would remain on the Caltech faculty until his departure for China in 1955, becoming the Robert H. Goddard Professor of Jet Propulsion in 1949, and establishing a reputation as one of the leading rocket scientists in the United States.[9]

It was shortly after arriving at Caltech in 1936 that Qian was attracted to the rocketry ideas of Frank Malina, other students of von Kármán, and their associates, including Jack Parsons. Around Caltech the dangerous and explosive nature of their work earned them the nickname "Suicide Squad."[9]

Career in the United States

Left to right: Ludwig Prandtl (German scientist), Qian Xuesen, Theodore von Kármán. Prandtl served Germany during World War II; von Kármán and Qian served the United States; after 1956, Qian served China. Qian's overseas cap displays his temporary U.S. Army rank of colonel. Interestingly, Prandtl was von Kármán's doctoral adviser; von Kármán in turn was Qian's.

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.[10] 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.”[2] 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."[11]

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.

Qian Xuesen married Jiang Ying (蒋英), a famed opera singer and the daughter of Jiang Baili (蒋百里) and his wife, Japanese nurse Satô Yato. The elder Jiang was a military strategist and adviser to Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek. The Qians were married on September 14, 1947[12] in Shanghai, and would have two children; their son Qian Yonggang was born in Boston on October 13, 1948,[13] while their daughter Qian Yungjen was born in early 1950,[14] when the family was residing in Pasadena.

Shortly after his wedding, Qian returned to America, to take up a teaching position at MIT; Jiang Ying would join him in December 1947.[15] In 1949, upon the recommendation of von Kármán, Qian became the first director of the Daniel and Florence Guggenheim Jet Propulsion Center at Caltech.[9]

In 1947 Qian was granted a permanent resident permit,[6] and in 1949 Qian applied for naturalization.[3] Years later, his wife Jiang Ying would say that he could not raise the necessary funds.[16]


In the early 1940s, Army Intelligence was already aware of allegations that Qian was a Communist but his security clearance was not suspended.[17] On June 6, 1950, however, his security clearance was revoked and Qian was questioned by the FBI. Two weeks later Qian announced that he would be resigning from Caltech and returning to China, which had come under the government of Communist leader Mao Zedong.[5][18] Qian had a conversation with the then Under Secretary of the Navy Dan A. Kimball, whom Qian knew on a personal basis, in August. After Qian told him of the allegations Kimball said, "Hell, I don't think you're a Communist" at which point Qian indicated that he intended to leave the country, saying "I'm Chinese. I don't want to build weapons to kill my countrymen. It's that simple." Kimball then said "I won't let you out of the country."[19]

After the firm in charge of arranging Qian's move back to China tipped off U.S. Customs that some of the papers encountered while packing Qian's things were marked "Secret" or "Confidential," U.S. officials went to the Pasadena warehouse where the materials were located and seized them. U.S. Immigration issued a warrant for Qian's arrest on August 25. Qian said that the documents that had security stamps were mostly written by himself and had outdated classifications, adding that "There were some drawings and logarithm tables, etc., which someone might have mistaken for codes."[20] Included in the material was a scrapbook with news clippings about the trials of those charged with atomic espionage, such as Klaus Fuchs.[21] Subsequent examination of the documents showed they contained no classified material.[6]

While at Caltech Qian had secretly attended meetings also attended by J. Robert Oppenheimer's brother Frank Oppenheimer, Jack Parsons, and Frank Malina that were organized by the Russian-born Jewish chemist Sidney Weinbaum and called Professional Unit 122 of the Pasadena Communist Party.[22] Weinbaum's trial commenced on August 30 and both Frank Oppenheimer and Parsons testified against him.[23] Weinbaum was convicted of perjury and sentenced to four years.[24] Qian was taken into custody on September 6, 1950 for questioning[6] and for two weeks detained at Terminal Island, a low-security United States federal prison near the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

When Qian had returned from China with his new bride in 1947 he had answered "no" on an immigration questionnaire that asked if he ever had been a member of an organization advocating overthrow of the U.S. Government by force and this, together with an American Communist Party document from 1938 with Qian's name on it, was used to argue that Qian was a national security threat. Prosecutors also cited a cross-examination session where Qian said "I owe allegiance to the people of China" and would "certainly not" let the Government of the United States make his decision for him as to whom he would owe allegiance to in the event of a conflict between the U.S. and Red China. On April 26, 1951 Qian was declared subject to deportation and forbidden from leaving Los Angeles County without permission.[19]

Return to China

Qian became the subject of five years of secret diplomacy and negotiation between the U.S. and China. During this time he lived under constant surveillance with the permission to teach without any research (classified) duties.[5] During his incarceration, Qian received support from his colleagues at Caltech, including the institute's president Lee DuBridge, who flew to Washington to argue Qian's case. Caltech appointed attorney Grant Cooper to defend Qian.

The ban on Qian's leaving was lifted on 4 August 1955[6] and Qian resigned from Caltech shortly thereafter. Qian departed from Los Angeles aboard the Grover Cleveland in September 1955 amidst rumors that this was a swap for 11 U.S. airmen held captive by China since the end of the Korean War.[25]

Under Secretary Kimball, who had tried to keep Qian in the U.S., commented on the affair to say:

"It was the stupidest thing this country ever did. He was no more a Communist than I was, and we forced him to go."[3]

Qian had a successful career in China, leading and becoming the father of the Chinese missile program with the construction of China's Dongfeng ballistic missiles and the Long March space rockets.

Qian's reputation as a prominent scientist who, in effect, defected from the United States to China, gave him considerable influence in the China of Mao Zedong during the late 1950s.

Qian rose through Party ranks to become a Central Committee member. He became associated with the China's Space Program - From Conception to Manned Spaceflight. Qian retired in 1991 and lived quietly in Beijing, refusing to speak to Westerners.[26]

In 1979 Qian was awarded Caltech's Distinguished Alumni Award. In the early 1990s the filing cabinets containing Qian's research work were offered to him by Caltech. Most of these works became the foundation for the Qian Library at Xi'an Jiaotong University while the rest went to the Institute of Mechanics. Qian eventually received his award from Caltech, and with the help of his friend Frank Marble brought it to his home in a widely covered ceremony. Qian was also invited to visit the US by AIAA after the normalization of Sino-US relationship, but he refused the invitation, having wanted a formal apology for his detention. In a 2002 published reminiscence, Marble stated that he believed that Qian had “lost faith in the American government” but that he had “always had very warm feelings for the American people.”[27]

The PRC government launched its manned space program in 1992 (reportedly with some help from Russia due to their extended history in space) and used Qian's research as the basis for the Long March rocket which successfully launched the Shenzhou V mission in October 2003. The elderly Qian was able to watch China's first manned space mission on television from his hospital bed.

Science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, in his novel 2010: Odyssey Two, named a Chinese spaceship after him.

Later life

In his later years, since the 1980s, Qian advocated scientific investigation of traditional Chinese medicine, Qigong and "special human body functions". Some people claim that Qian actually did not spend his effort[clarification needed] on qigong, but that he just expressed that people should consider the widely practiced qigong in a scientific manner. He particularly encouraged scientists to accumulate observational data on qigong for the establishment of future theories.[28]

From the early 1980s he studied in a number of areas, and created systematics, contributed on science and technology system and somatic science, philosophy, natural sciences, engineering science, literature and art, military science, systems science, geography, social science, and education.

Advanced the concepts, theory and method on system science: open complex giant system, from qualitative to quantitative integration of Hall for Workshop of comprehensive and integrated system,[29][30] and opened up a Chinese school of the Science of Complexity. Organizated scientific seminars and train successors.[31]

In 2008, he was named Aviation Week and Space Technology Person of the Year. This selection is not intended as an honour but is given to the person judged to have the greatest impact on aviation in the past year.[2][32]

In 2008, China Central Television named Qian as one of the eleven most inspiring people in China.[33] He died at the age of 97 on October 31, 2009 in Beijing.[11][34]

In July 2009, the Omega Alpha Association named Qian (H. S. Tsien) one of four Honorary Members in the international systems engineering honor society.[35]

A Chinese film production Qian Xue Sen, directed by Zhang Jianya, stars Chen Kun as Qian, was released on 11 December 2011 in both Asia and North America.[36]

Scientific papers

  • Tsien HS Two-dimensional subsonic flow of compressible fluids // Aeronaut. Sci. 1939
  • Von Karman T, Tsien HS. The buckling of thin cylindrical shells under axial compression. J Aeronaut Sci 1941
  • Tsien, HS 1943 Symmetrical Joukowsky Airfoils in shear flow. Q. Appl. Math.
  • Tsien, HS, "On the Design of the Contraction Cone for a Wind Tunnel," J. Aeronaut. Sci., 10, 68-70, 1943
  • Von Karman, T. and Tsien, HS, "Lifting- line Theory for a Wing in Nonuniform Flow," Quarterly of Applied Mathematics, Vol. 3, 1945
  • Tsien, HS: Similarity laws of hypersonic flows. J. Math. Phys. 25, 247-251, (1946).
  • Tsien, HS 1952 The transfer functions of rocket nozzles. J. Am. Rocket Soc
  • Tsien, HS, "Rockets and Other Thermal Jets Using Nuclear Energy", The Science and Engineering of Nuclear Power, Addison-Wesley Vol.11, 1949
  • Tsien, HS, “Take-Off from Satellite Orbit,” Journal of the American. Rocket Society, Vol. 23, No. 4, 1953
  • Tsien, HS 1956 The Poincaré-Lighthill-Kuo Method, Advances in Appl. Mech.
  • Tsien, HS, 1958, "The equations of gas dynamics."


  • Engineering Cybernetics, Tsien, H.S. McGraw Hill, 1954
  • Tsien, H.S. Technische Kybernetik. Übersetzt von Dr. H. Kaltenecker. Berliner Union Stuttgart 1957
  • Hydrodynamic manuscript facsimile, Jiaotong University Press, 2007 ISBN 978-7-313-04199-9

See also



  1. "Biographies of Aerospace Officials and Policymakers". NASA. Retrieved 2 February 2015. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Perrett, Bradley (2008-01-06). "Qian Xuesen Laid Foundation For Space Rise in China". Aviation Week and Space Technology. 168 (1). Archived from the original on 11 May 2011. Retrieved 2 February 2015. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Perrett, Bradley; Asker, James R. (January 7, 2008). "Person of the Year: Qian Xuesen". Aviation Week and Space Technology. 168 (1): 57–61. Retrieved 2 February 2015.  (subscription required)
  4. "Tsien". Encyclopedia Astronautica. Retrieved 2 February 2015. 
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 "Tsien Hsue-Shen Dies". Caltech. 2 November 2009. Archived from the original on 12 June 2010. Retrieved 2 February 2015. 
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 "US Deporting Rocket Expert". The Milwaukee Journal. 13 September 1955. Retrieved 2 February 2015. 
  7. "钱学森:历尽险阻报效祖国 火箭之王淡泊名誉" [Qian Xuesen: King of Rocketry who experienced obstacles in serving the Motherland]. 人民网 (People Network). 31 October 2009. Retrieved October 31, 2009.  (Chinese)
  8. "美国航空周刊2008年度人物:钱学森" [US Aviation Week & Space Technology Person of the Year 2008: Qian Xuesen]. 网易探索(广州). 31 October 2009. Retrieved November 11, 2009.  (Chinese)
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 "GALCIT History". Caltech. Retrieved 2 February 2015. 
  10. Chang, Iris (1995). Thread of the Silkworm. New York: BasicBooks. pp. 109–117. ISBN 978-0-465-08716-7. 
  11. 11.0 11.1 Noland, Claire (1 November 2009). "Qian Xuesen dies at 98; rocket scientist helped establish Jet Propulsion Laboratory". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2 February 2015. 
  12. Chang (1995), p. 139
  13. Chang (1995), p. 141
  14. Chang (1995), p. 153
  15. Chang (1995), pp. 139-140
  16. 凤凰卫视 (18 February 2012). "2012-02-18我的中国心 天籁美音——蒋英" [My Chinese Heart heavenly tone: Jiang Ying]. 凤凰网/凤凰视频. Retrieved 2 February 2015.  (Chinese)
  17. Chang (1995), p. 158
  18. Chang (1995), p. 149-150
  19. 19.0 19.1 William L. Ryan and Sam Summerlin, The China cloud: America's tragic blunder and China's rise to nuclear power Hutchison (1969) ISBN 978-0090959600
  20. Chang (1995), p. 157
  21. Chang (1995), p. 160
  22. Ray Monk, Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center Random House ISBN 978-0-385-50407-2 (2012)
  23. George Pendle, Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons Mariner Books (2006) ISBN 0-297-84853-4 p. 291
  24. Chang (1995), p. 159
  25. "Scientist To Be Deported By U.S.". DAytona Beach Morning Journal. AP. 13 September 1955. Retrieved 2 February 2015. 
  26. Peter Grier, "The forgotten 'spy' case of a rocket scientist" The Christian Science Monitor Vol. 92 Issue 244, November 2000
  27. Tsien Revisited
  28. <创建人体科学>四川教育出版社出版
  29. 钱学森:创建系统学(新世纪版),上海交通大学出版社
  30. 钱学森:论系统工程(新世纪版),上海交通大学出版社
  31. 科技网 -《科技日报》- 钱学森的系统科学成就和贡献
  32. Hold Your Fire, Aviation Week and Space Technology, Vol. 168., No. 1, January 7, 2008, p. 8.
  33. Person of the Year, Aviation Week and Space Technology, Vol. 168., No. 12, March 24, 2008, p. 22
  34. "China's "father of space technology" dies at 98". Xinhua. 2009-10-31. Retrieved 2009-11-01. 
  35. http://www.omegalpha.org/honorary members/html
  36. 钱学森HD1280高清国语中英双字Hsue-shen Tsien (2012) on YouTube


External links