China's space pioneer under the microscope
By Peter J Brown
China views Qian Xuesen (Tsien Hsue-shen) as one of its most senior scientists. This month, Premier Wen Jiabao visited Qian, as well as other senior scientists, and the Shanghai Daily reported that this was the premier's fourth visit with Qian in recent years.
As the 100th anniversary of Qian's birth in 1911 draws near, his role and contribution continue to be debated in the West.
Thread of the Silkworm (Basic Books) by the late Iris Chang, which was published in 1995, remains the most detailed biography of Qian in the English language. Now two American researchers, Dr Gregory Kulacki and Jeffrey Lewis, offer more information about Qian while portraying him in a somewhat different light in their recently published paper entitled "A Place for One's Mat: China's Space Program, 1956-2003".
Kulacki is senior analyst and China project manager at the Massachusetts-based Union of Concerned Scientists. Lewis is director of the Nuclear Strategy and Non-proliferation Initiative at the Washington, DC-based New America Foundation. Their paper was published as part of the "Reconsidering the Rules of Space" project at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences under the guidance of the academy's Committee on International Security Studies.
More than a decade ago Chang wrote her in-depth, 329-page book focused entirely on Qian's life until the early 1990s, whereas Kulacki and Lewis set out to do something far different in just over 30 pages. They wrote that, "We do not for a moment believe that we have written a definitive history of China's space program. We do not present the complete chronologies of every space program and piece of technology discussed in the original Chinese sources, but instead have selected as case studies three important decisions and accomplishments: (1) The launch of China's first satellite in 1970, (2) The launch of China's first communications satellite in 1984, and (3) China's first human space flight in 2003."
Kulacki and Lewis start their paper with a passage that somewhat downplays the importance of Chang's overall contribution to the historical record. Although they list her work in their bibliography at the very end of their paper (pg 34), they do not mention her book here.
Although China has become only the third country to place a human being in orbit, little of the history of the Chinese space program has been written in English. Of the handful of books on the subject, two slim volumes stand out: The Chinese Space Program, by Joan Johnson-Freese; and China's Space Program, by Brian Harvey. These books are important, early efforts to document the history of China's space program by focusing on things we can observe from afar - namely, the satellites China has placed in orbit. These books provide a solid background on the technical realities of China's program, particularly in a comparative context. Although they are therefore necessary to understand the Chinese space program, they are not sufficient. (pg 2) It is up to each reader to determine if Chang's book and "A Place for One's Mat" differ greatly. For example, Kulacki and Lewis concluded, among other things, that, "Qian is, first and foremost, a cheerleader, pressing China's leaders to consider the possibilities of interplanetary space flight even as China endured one of the worst famines in human history." (pg 30)
Chang, on the other hand, described Qian's primary role this way: "First of all, Tsien gave the government the most important thing - confidence." (pg 209)
Kulacki and Lewis wrote that Qian was placed in a leadership position almost from the moment that the late chairman Mao Zedong made the formal decision to build a Chinese "Sputnik" during the Second Plenary Meeting of the Eighth Party Congress on May 17, 1958.
"Mao exclaimed: 'If we're going to throw one up there then throw a big one, one that weighs two tons. Of course we start throwing small, but with one that is at least two tons. Something like that chicken egg of the Americans, I won't do it!' After Mao's pronouncement, the CAS (Chinese Academy of Science) made the satellite program its number one priority for 1958 and formed a special group ‘group 581’ - to carry out a three-phase plan beginning with the development of a sounding rocket, the launch of a 200-kilogram satellite, and finally, the launch of a satellite of several thousand kilograms. Qian Xuesen was the group leader, with Zhao Jiuzhang and Wei Yiqing as assistant group leaders. They established three design academies under the CAS to carry out the plan." (pgs 4-5)
And Qian still exercised great authority later on around the time of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Out of the turmoil came the Chinese Academy of Space Technology (CAST) in early 1968, and Qian became CAST's first director. These two authors wrote that, "amid the chaos, [premier] Zhou Enlai tried unsuccessfully to protect the satellite program at CAS from the political and ideological struggles initiated by the movement. The satellite program was being destroyed in the chaos. One casualty of the Cultural Revolution was Zhao Jiuzhang, as responsible as anyone for pushing the satellite program since the late 1950s. Zhao was eventually removed from his positions at CAS. Later, in October 1968, he committed suicide." (pg 12)
At this point, Qian's significant organizational contributions came into play, and one can see how Qian impacted the development of Chinese satellites.
Qian replaced Zhao Jiuzhang with a young ex-air force officer, Sun Jiadong. Sun had studied airplane engine design in Moscow, worked as a technical translator, and had worked as a designer on the missile program with the Fifth Academy under Qian since its founding ... Sun decided Zhao's original design was too complicated for the initial launch and quickly won General Nie's support to strip the satellite down to a bare minimum. Instead of Zhao's vision of the project as a cornerstone for a long-term satellite development program, Sun's stripped down satellite was named East Is Red 1, after a collection of converted folk songs that told the story of the revolution. All the satellite could do was play the first few bars of the song. The scientists who had worked on the satellite program before the onset of the Cultural Revolution strongly opposed Sun's proposal. Nevertheless, CSTND - the Committee on Science and Technology for National Defense - approved the proposal in October 1967 - in large part because of support from Qian Xuesen - and set aside much of the work on the instrument packages and structural design that had been done in the two years since the Project 651 meeting. (pg 13)Although not everything that Qian endorsed was a winner, Qian possessed the ability to successfully delegate and this, among other things, enabled the Chinese program to move forward. And while Kulacki and Lewis are right to label Qian as an excellent cheerleader - "After the successful launch of East is Red 1 and an enthusiastic speech by Qian Xuesen, the assembled experts boldly proposed a plan to put a Chinese astronaut in space by the end of 1973." (pg 20) - and while his ability to inspire and motivate his trusted associates and fans deserves attention, this was not his primary role.
An early 2008 article - "Sea Change: The biggest change in the new ocean of space is China's rise to the fore" - by Bradley Perrett and James Asker at Aviation Week and Space Technology magazine which is the leading US weekly publication covering the aerospace sector must also be included here. In this article, Aviation Week named Qian their "Person of the Year" for 2007.
"Qian Xuesen is not our Person of the Year because he personally directed these efforts. Now 96 years old and in poor health, he has not been active in the Chinese space program for many years. Rather, it's because he, more than anyone, is credited with the leading role in creating the scientific and industrial complex that's now reaching these heights of achievement. He began to create it, in 1956, from almost nothing," wrote Perrett and Asker. "At the time, his Chinese colleagues knew little about rocket propulsion. His personal book collection became a key resource. And his first research institute had only one telephone."
Qian shipped that book collection from the US to China in the early 1950s, and the shipment itself is somewhat controversial given the prolonged questioning of Qian's loyalties at the time.
Perrett and Asker also saluted Chang's book, saying that it, "remains a leading source for information about Qian", and included this quote by Chang about Qian - "And it was he who helped turn systems engineering into a science in China, by working out a management structure that would facilitate communication between tiers of experts with a minimum of confusion and bureaucracy."
They also included this comment from Luan Enjie, a former administrator of the China National Space Administration, and now in charge of China's Chang'e lunar program - "He's the father of our space industry. It's difficult to say where we would be without him."
Above all else, Chang's decision to label Qian as someone who, "gave the government the most important thing - confidence" speaks more to his character and emphasizes his credibility more than his enthusiasm alone.
Chang also wrote in her book's introduction about the role of Chinese government officials who have for decades served as persistent gatekeepers in terms of access to important information about Qian. She highlighted the "sense of secrecy and paranoia" that surrounded Qian - "The biggest problem was getting information of a personal nature on Tsien during the years when he helped construct the Chinese missile and space program," Chang wrote. "During my first visit to the People's Republic of China in the summer of 1993, I became keenly aware of this secrecy when I was invited to a dinner in Beijing at which certain colleagues of Tsien's pleaded with me not to write anything that would offend Tsien for fear that they might be punished." (pgs xv-xvi)
Chang also discussed the difficulty she encountered in the United States due to the fact that the US Federal Bureau of Investigation's files on Qian remained tightly sealed as well. And when she interviewed Qian's son, Yucon Tsien, in California in 1991, he conveyed the fact that Qian "still harbored considerable resentment against the US government for their treatment of him during the 1950s".
"If my father had committed a crime in this country then my father would have nothing to say. But my father devoted 20 years of his life to service in the United States and contributed to much of this nation's technology only to be repaid by being driven out of this country," said Tsien. (pg xvii)
Today, even inside China, there are vastly different opinions about Qian's life beyond his contribution to the Chinese space program. In an exchange during the preparation of this commentary, Kulacki disputed any attempt to link Qian to any studies in China on supernatural powers in the mid-1980s. Nor does Kulacki accept any assertion that Qian may have somehow directly or indirectly encouraged the flourishing of Qigong schools.
"Qian did not believe in supernatural power to the best of my knowledge," said Kulacki. "Moreover, Qigong is not a religion or in any way connected with the supernatural. It is a well-established tradition within Chinese martial arts and Chinese medicine with a long history that can be, and usually is, practiced in the absence of any beliefs about religion or the supernatural."
"It would not be surprising for an old Chinese man to be interested in Qigong, or to practice it. Tens of millions do. It is an exercise to promote good health and longevity, pure and simple," added Kulacki.
At the same time, however, Chang wrote about Qian's intense interest in ESP (extra-sensory perception), and she mentioned an article that Qian wrote in 1981 in which "he urged the government to devote more resources to the study of the brain so more could be learned about ESP, Qigong, and acupuncture". (pg 257).
Today, even at age 98, Qian is still an active participant in China's aerospace sector. Just a few days ago, at the ceremony celebrating the founding of the new China Aerospace Science and Industry Academy of Information Technology (CASIC-IT), it was announced that "a congratulatory letter" had been received from Qian who wanted others to know that in his eyes, the formation of CASIC-IT strengthened China's aerospace and information technology industry.
The year 2011 is fast approaching. Let us all hope that he is still alive in 2011 to celebrate his 100th birthday and to witness China's first space flight to Mars, which is scheduled for launch soon aboard a Russian rocket.
Peter J Brown is a freelance satellite journalist from the state of Maine, USA.