Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Rocket Scientist

We sometimes hear the expressions that suggest something is simple or someone is simple-minded as “this is not rocket science” or "it doesn't take a rocket scientist". A brilliant rocket scientist had just died. On Oct 31st, Qian Xuesen錢學森aka H.S. (Hsue-shen) Tsien passed away in Beijing, China, a month or so before his 98th birthday. The news did not attract much public attention and reporting in U.S. but for Chinese and those who followed the development of aerospace science and engineering, it is big. Qian has been called the Father of Chinese Space and Missile programs and was named the person of the year in 2007 by the trade magazine Aviation Week.

Qian was born in HangZhou, China in 1911 and studied mechanical engineering in Shanghai JiaoTong University. He later went to MIT in summer 1935 and obtained his M.S. in aerospace engineering sponsored by the Boxer Rebellion Indemnity Scholarship庚子賠款獎學. Incidentally, this scholarship program was established in 1907 under Theodore Roosevelt administration using the “excess” of the indemnity paid to U.S. under the Boxer Protocol or Treaty of 1901 between Eight-Nation Alliance and China (note U.S.’s share was about $0.5 billion dollars in today’s dollar or about twice of what U.S. had asked for; thus the "excess"). The reputed HsingHua University清華大學was started out of this fund and more than 1,000 students came to U.S. to study since 1909 under its sponsorship. Many of them became prominent leaders in their fields including philosopher Hu Shihand Nobel Physics Laureate Chen-Ning Franklin Yang楊振 .

Qian went to Caltech (California Institute of Technology) in 1936 and received his Ph.D. in 1939 under the preeminent aerodynamics scientist Theodore von Karman, a Hungarian-American, who had called him as “an undisputed genius”. Qian was a member of the 6 person "suicide squad” led by another Karman’s graduate student Frank Malina that designed and conducted many rocket experiments. As the program matured, they became the founding members of now world renown JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a federally funded research and development center) with Frank Malina as its first director. As WWII intensified in Europe and the German rocket and missile capabilities advanced, one can imagine the importance of their work to U.S. government and the Ally. In fact Qian was sent to Germany after the war to interrogate key Nazi scientists including Wernher von Braun who designed the German V-2 rocket. Later, von Braun helped U.S. develop its Intercontinental Ballistic Missile and led the development of NASA’s Saturn V booster rocket that put first men on the moon. Some have called Von Braun the Father of U.S. space program.

Qian’s stardom career in U.S. took a drastic turn in 1950 during the second Red Scare (the first one took place in 1917-1920 after the Bolshevik Russian Revolution of 1917). He was accused of being a member of a subversive organization, arrested and put in jail for two weeks by Immigration Authority (he was in the process of applying for citizenship at the time) before his colleagues and friends got him out. His security clearance was revoked and he could no longer participate in those critical programs. The only “evidences” cited against him appeared to be that he had gone to one social gathering (at the invitation of Frank Malina) of some alleged communist sympathizers and that his name was mentioned in an American Communist Party document. The sensitive and secret documents and data he was alleged to have packed and brought to China in his planned visit of his family turned out to be public domain data like a logarithm table.

Despite efforts to clear his name by him, his colleagues and Caltech, Qian remained under partial house arrest for subsequent years. He tried his best to continue his unclassified research at home and at Caltech. While it was not totally clear the timeline of various events, Qian did declare his intent to return to China early on during the investigation and prosecution. The action was most likely due to that he was so upset with the accusation and treatment and that he saw his future in U.S. had been ruined. All along it appeared that he had all the intention to stay and work in U.S. Indeed there wasn’t any indication that Qian was ever active in politics or subscribed to any particular ideology.

Of course, U.S. government would not let Qian leave the country under the circumstances, knowing his ability, knowledge, and previous critical involvement of military applications of rocketry. It wasn’t till Sept 1955 when U.S. government released him and allowed him and his family to go to China as a part of post Korea War negotiation for the release and exchange of some American prisoners held by China. The rest is history. China has since developed ballistic missiles of all ranges over the years. It now launches commercial satellites regularly for the western countries including U.S. China has also just completed its first space walk in 2008 and is busy moving ahead for manned space missions. Qian was unquestionably the key figure in China’s quest of missile and space technology in last five decades.

Well, we rarely learn from history. Qian’s story was only one of many examples that took place under McCarthyism-like practices in many countries and societies; it incubates and looks for opportunities to germinate from time to time. As recent as 1998, U.S. House of Representatives had formed a committee to look into military/commercial concerns with China. The final Cox Report included some controversial statements that repeated the allegation of Qian being a Chinese spy without any proof. At about the same time, WenHo Lee 李文, a Taiwan-born Chinese American scientist who worked at the Los Alamos National Lab, was falsely accused of being a spy for Chinese government. Eventually all the initial sensationalization and exaggeration proved to be just that. Federal government dropped finally dropped 58 out of the 59 charges and settled the case with Lee’s guilty plea to the sole felony charge of improper handling of restricted data.

I am not suggesting a country or an entity should not protect its own interest. Being the most developed country who owns so much advanced commercial and military technologies, U.S. must assume that there are countries and organizations, friends or foe, out there who would like to get their hands on those data. One must devise and implement safeguards to maximize the competitive advantage for business as well as for national security. But let us not forget that the real unique asset and advantage America has is its people including the talented and motivated immigrants.

Thankfully, people in U.S. are blessed with a pretty good judicial system and a strong journalistic tradition, protected under the First Amendment (freedom of speech) and laws like Freedom of Information Act. White terror and mass hysteria sometimes may override logic and reason temporarily for some periods. With persistent pursuits of facts and truth however, justice does usually prevail. Even a powerful and fearful figure like Senator Joe McCarthy was eventually brought down by public opinion with help from transparent proceedings offered by TV broadcast and critical examination of conscientious journalists like Ed Murrow of CBS. However we must be vigilant. We must make sure that immigrants are treated fairly and justly. Incidents like Qian's must not be allowed to happen again.

Talk to you soon!

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