Rocketry research is generally regarded a collective effort, requiring the involvement of many individuals and organisations across a wide range of scientific disciplines. However, it cannot be denied that a small number of key individuals often played a pivotal role in a country’s rocketry and space effort. Just as Russia has Sergei Korolev and the U.S. has Wernher von Braun, China also has its leading figure in the development of rocket technology — Dr Qian Xuesen.
Qian was born in 1911 in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province in China. He graduated from Chiao Tung University in Shanghai in 1934 and received a Bachelor degree in mechanical engineering. He spent an internship in a ROC Air Force base but left China in August 1935 on a Boxer Rebellion Indemnity Scholarship to study mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). A year later he graduated with a MSc degree and then went to the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) to conduct research under Theodore von Kármán. He was awarded his doctorate from Caltech in 1939.
During his time in Caltech, Qian earned his reputation as a leading rocket scientist and played a key role in the early U.S. efforts to exploit jet and rocket propulsion in the 1940s. He co-founded the famous Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in 1943. In the aftermath of World War II, Qian and Von Kármán were sent to Germany to investigate Nazi wartime rocketry research. There he inspected research facilities and interviewed German scientists including Wernher von Braun. In 1949, Qian applied the knowledge he had learned in Germany to develop an intercontinental spaceplane concept, which inspired later studies on winged spacecraft that ultimately led to the Space Shuttle.
When the Korean War broke out, Qian became a victim of widespread red scares under McCarthyism. His security clearance was revoked in June 1950, making it impossible for him to continue his research at Caltech. He was then questioned and later detained by the FBI for allegedly joining the Communist Party. He spent the next five years in house arrest, being prohibited to either continue his research or leave the United States. In June 1955, Qian appealed through his connections to the PRC government for help. After Beijing agreed to release 11 U.S. Air Force prisoners of war, Qian was allowed to return to China via Hong Kong in October 1955.
Upon his return, Qian was asked by Chinese military leaders including Marshal Nie Rongzhen and General Chen Geng to help set up a missile programme, to which he swiftly agreed. In February 1956, Qian presented a report to the CCP’s Central Committee outlining a detailed plan for developing China’s rocketry and missile technology, including the creation of a dedicated missile R&D institution and relevant management body within the government and military echelons. Qian’s plan was soon approved by the political leadership and put into action. In October 1956, Qian was appointed the director of the Ministry of National Defence’s Fifth Academy in charge of China’s rocketry research and development.
Qian was not the only Chinese scholar who have returned from overseas. In fact, even before they took power the Chinese Communists had already begun to secretively recruit from Western educated Chinese scientists living overseas, especially those with expertise in nuclear technology and rocketry. In the early 1950s, the PRC government publicly called for overseas Chinese scholars to return to the motherland to join the ‘socialist construction’. Between 1949 and 1955, a total of 1,536 Chinese scholars returned from overseas, including 1,041 from the United States.