Qian Xuesen

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Qian Xuesen
Tsien Hsue-shen
Tsien Hsue-shen.jpg
Native name
Born(1911-12-11)11 December 1911
Died31 October 2009(2009-10-31) (aged 97)
Nationality Chinese
Alma mater National Chiao Tung University
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
California Institute of Technology
Known forCo-founder of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Founder of engineering cybernetics
Father of Chinese space program
Work on the Manhattan Project [1]
Jiang Ying (m. 1947)
ChildrenQian Yonggang
Qian Yungjen
AwardsDistinguished Alumni Award from Caltech (1979)
Scientific career
Fields Aerospace engineering
Engineering cybernetics
Institutions California Institute of Technology (professor) and Jet Propulsion Laboratory (co-founder)
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (professor)
Fifth Academy of the Ministry of National Defense, PRC (first director)
Institute of Mechanics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (first director)
Commission of Science and Technology for National Defense of the PLA (vice-director)
Thesis Problems in motion of compressible fluids and reaction propulsion  (1939)
Doctoral advisor Theodore von Kármán
Doctoral students Cheng Chemin
Chinese name
Traditional Chinese 錢學森
Simplified Chinese 钱学森
Literal meaning Qian (surname) learning-forest

Qian Xuesen, or Hsue-Shen Tsien (Chinese :钱学森; 11 December 1911 – 31 October 2009), was a Chinese aerospace engineer and cyberneticist who made significant contributions to the field of aerodynamics and established engineering cybernetics. Recruited from MIT, he joined Theodore von Karman's group at Caltech. [2] During WWII, he was involved in the Manhattan Project, which ultimately led to the successful development of the first atomic bomb in America. [1] Later on, he would eventually return to China, where he would make important contributions to China's missile and space program.

Simplified Chinese characters Standardized Chinese characters developed in mainland China

Simplified Chinese characters are standardized Chinese characters prescribed in the Table of General Standard Chinese Characters for use in mainland China. Along with traditional Chinese characters, they are one of the two standard character sets of the contemporary Chinese written language. The government of the People's Republic of China in mainland China has promoted them for use in printing since the 1950s and 1960s to encourage literacy. They are officially used in the People's Republic of China, Malaysia and Singapore.

Aerodynamics branch of dynamics concerned with studying the motion of air

Aerodynamics, from Greek ἀήρ aero (air) + δυναμική (dynamics), is the study of motion of air, particularly as interaction with a solid object, such as an airplane wing. It is a sub-field of fluid dynamics and gas dynamics, and many aspects of aerodynamics theory are common to these fields. The term aerodynamics is often used synonymously with gas dynamics, the difference being that "gas dynamics" applies to the study of the motion of all gases, and is not limited to air. The formal study of aerodynamics began in the modern sense in the eighteenth century, although observations of fundamental concepts such as aerodynamic drag were recorded much earlier. Most of the early efforts in aerodynamics were directed toward achieving heavier-than-air flight, which was first demonstrated by Otto Lilienthal in 1891. Since then, the use of aerodynamics through mathematical analysis, empirical approximations, wind tunnel experimentation, and computer simulations has formed a rational basis for the development of heavier-than-air flight and a number of other technologies. Recent work in aerodynamics has focused on issues related to compressible flow, turbulence, and boundary layers and has become increasingly computational in nature.

Engineering cybernetics or technical cybernetics, established by Qian Xuesen, is a field of cybernetics, which deals with the question of control engineering of mechatronic systems as well as chemical or biological systems. It is used to control and predict the behaviour of such a system; see control theory.


During the Second Red Scare, in the 1950s, the US federal government accused him of communist sympathies. In 1950, despite protests by his colleagues, he was stripped of his security clearance. [3] He decided to return to China, but he was detained at Terminal Island, near Los Angeles. [4]

Terminal Island Place in California, United States

Terminal Island is a largely artificial island located in Los Angeles County, California, between the neighborhood of San Pedro in the city of Los Angeles, and the city of Long Beach. Terminal Island is roughly split between the Port of Los Angeles and Port of Long Beach. Land use on the island is entirely industrial and port-related, as well as houses the Federal Correctional Institution, Terminal Island.

Los Angeles City in California

Los Angeles, officially the City of Los Angeles and often known by its initials L.A., is the most populous city in California; the second most populous city in the United States, after New York City; and the third-most populous city in North America, after Mexico City and New York City. With an estimated population of nearly four million people, Los Angeles is the cultural, financial, and commercial center of Southern California. The city is known for its Mediterranean climate, ethnic diversity, Hollywood, the entertainment industry, and its sprawling metropolis.

After spending five years under house arrest, [5] he was released in 1955 in exchange for the repatriation of American pilots who had been captured during the Korean War. He left the United States in September 1955 on the American President Lines passenger liner SS President Cleveland, arriving in China via Hong Kong. [6]

In justice and law, house arrest is a measure by which a person is confined by the authorities to their residence. Travel is usually restricted, if allowed at all. House arrest is an alternative to being in a prison while awaiting trial or after sentencing.

Repatriation process of returning assets to original owners

Repatriation is the process of returning an asset, an item of symbolic value or a person – voluntarily or forcibly – to its owner or their place of origin or citizenship. The term may refer to non-human entities, such as converting a foreign currency into the currency of one's own country, as well as to the process of returning military personnel to their place of origin following a war. It also applies to diplomatic envoys, international officials as well as expatriates and migrants in time of international crisis. For refugees, asylum seekers and illegal migrants, repatriation can mean either voluntary return or deportation.

Korean War 1950s war between North and South Korea

The Korean War was a war between North Korea and South Korea. The war began on 25 June 1950 when North Korea invaded South Korea following a series of clashes along the border.

Upon his return, he helped lead the Chinese nuclear weapons program.[ citation needed ] This effort ultimately led to China's first successful atomic bomb test and hydrogen bomb test, making China the fifth nuclear weapons state, and achieving the fastest fission-to-fusion development in history. Additionally, Qian's work led to the development of the Dongfeng ballistic missile and the Chinese space program. For his contributions, he became known as the "Father of Chinese Rocketry", nicknamed the "King of Rocketry". [7] [8] He is recognized as one of the founding fathers of Two Bombs, One Satellite. [9]

China and weapons of mass destruction

The People's Republic of China has developed and possesses weapons of mass destruction, including chemical and nuclear weapons. The first of China's nuclear weapons tests took place in 1964, and its first hydrogen bomb test occurred in 1967. Tests continued until 1996, when China signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). China has acceded to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC) in 1984 and ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in 1997.

Test No. 6 is the codename for China's first test of a three-staged thermonuclear device and, also its sixth nuclear weapons test.

In 1957, Qian was elected an academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. He served as a Vice Chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference from 1987 to 1998.

An academician is a full member of an artistic, literary, engineering or scientific national academy. In many countries, it is an honorific title used to denote a full member of an academy that has a strong influence on national scientific life. In systems such as the Academy of Sciences of the USSR, the title grants privileges and administrative responsibilities for funding allocation and research priorities.

Chinese Academy of Sciences academy of sciences

The Chinese Academy of Sciences, is a Chinese research institute. It has historical origins in the Academia Sinica during the Republican era and formerly also known by that name, is the national academy for the natural sciences of the People's Republic of China (PRC). Collectively known as the "Two Academies (两院)" along with the Chinese Academy of Engineering, it functions as the national scientific think tank and academic governing body, providing advisory and appraisal services on issues stemming from the national economy, social development, and science and technology progress. It is headquartered in Xicheng District, Beijing, with branch institutes all over mainland China. It has also created hundreds of commercial enterprises, Lenovo being one of the most famous.

The Vice Chairperson of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) is a political office in the People's Republic of China. The official responsibility of the Vice Chairpersons is to assist the Chairperson of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference with the leadership of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference Standing Committee. News reports have also suggested that the position of CPPCC Vice Chairperson, as a state-level post with a retirement age of 70, has been used as a device to extend the services of valued officials beyond the typical retirement age for their position. The appointment of People's Bank of China Governor Zhou Xiaochuan as a Vice Chairperson in 2013 was said to be for this purpose, and the Chinese leadership may be considering a similar appointment for Minister of Finance Lou Jiwei.

He was the cousin of mechanical engineer Hsue-Chu Tsien, who was involved in the aerospace industries of China and the United States; his nephew is Roger Y. Tsien, the 2008 winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Hsue-Chu Tsien, COL, was a Chinese-born American aeronautic and mechanical engineer who played important roles in aircraft building in both China and afterward the United States.

Roger Y. Tsien American biochemist

Roger Yonchien Tsien was an American biochemist. He was a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of California, San Diego and was awarded the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his discovery and development of the green fluorescent protein, in collaboration with organic chemist Osamu Shimomura and neurobiologist Martin Chalfie. Tsien was also a pioneer of calcium imaging.

Nobel Prize in Chemistry One of the five Nobel Prizes established in 1895 by Alfred Nobel

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry is awarded annually by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences to scientists in the various fields of chemistry. It is one of the five Nobel Prizes established by the will of Alfred Nobel in 1895, awarded for outstanding contributions in chemistry, physics, literature, peace, and physiology or medicine. This award is administered by the Nobel Foundation, and awarded by Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences on proposal of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry which consists of five members elected by Academy. The award is presented in Stockholm at an annual ceremony on December 10, the anniversary of Nobel's death.

Early life and education

Qian 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, with Lu Shijia as classmate. and attended National Chiao Tung University (now Shanghai Jiaotong University) in 1934. There, he received a degree in mechanical engineering with an emphasis on railroad administration. He interned at Nanchang Air Force Base.

In August 1935, Qian left China on a Boxer Indemnity Scholarship to study mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he earned a Master of Science degree after one year.

While at MIT he was called Hsue-Shen Tsien. He was influenced by the methods of American engineering education, especially its focus on experimentation. This was in contrast to the contemporary approach practiced by many Chinese scientists, which emphasized theoretical elements rather than "hands-on" experience. Tsien's experiments included plotting of pitot pressures using mercury-filled manometers.

Theodore von Kármán, Tsien's doctoral advisor, described their first meeting:

One day in 1936 he came to me for advice on further graduate studies. This was our first meeting. I looked up to observe a slight short young man, with a serious look, who answered my questions with unusual precision. I was immediately impressed with the keenness and quickness of his mind, and I suggested that he enroll at Caltech for advanced study ... Tsien agreed. He worked with me on many mathematical problems. I found him to be quite imaginative, with a mathematical aptitude that he combined successfully with a great ability to visualize accurately the physical picture of natural phenomena. Even as a young student he helped clear up some of my own ideas on several difficult topics. These are gifts which I had not often encountered and Tsien and I became close colleagues. [10] :309

Kármán made his home a social scene for the aerodynamicists of Pasadena, and Tsien was drawn in: "Tsien enjoyed visiting my home, and my sister took to him because of his interesting ideas and straightforward manner."

Career in the United States

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

Shortly after arriving at Caltech in 1936, Tsien became fascinated with the rocketry ideas of Frank Malina, other students of von Kármán, and their associates, including Jack Parsons. Along with his fellow students, he was involved in rocket-related experiments at the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory at Caltech. Around the university, the dangerous and explosive nature of their work earned them the nickname "Suicide Squad." [11] [12] Tsien received his PhD from Caltech in 1939. [13]

During the Second World War, Tsien worked in the Manhattan Project, which led to America successfully developing the first atomic bomb. [1] In 1943, Tsien and two other members of their rocketry group drafted the first document to use the name Jet Propulsion Laboratory, originally a proposal to the Army for developing missiles in response to Germany's V-2 rocket. This led to Private A, which flew in 1944, and later the Corporal, the WAC Corporal, and other designs.

Von Kármán wrote of Tsien, "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." [14] During this time, he worked on designing an intercontinental space plane, which would later inspire the X-20 Dyna-Soar, a precursor to the American Space Shuttle.

Tsien 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 Tsiens were married on September 14, 1947 [15] in Shanghai, and had two children; their son Qian Yonggang (钱永刚, also known as Yucon Tsien [16] ) was born in Boston on October 13, 1948, [17] while their daughter Qian Yongzhen (钱永真) was born in early 1950 [18] when the family was residing in Pasadena, California.

Shortly after his wedding, Tsien returned to America to take up a teaching position at MIT. Jiang Ying would join him in December 1947. [19] In 1949, with the recommendation of von Kármán, Tsien became Robert H. Goddard Professor of Jet Propulsion at Caltech. [11]

In 1947 Tsien was granted a permanent resident permit, [6] and in 1949 he applied for naturalization, although he could not obtain citizenship. [3] Except for the memories of a few individuals, [3] there is no other official proof indicating that Tsien had tried to apply for naturalization. Years later, his wife Jiang Ying said in an interview with Phoenix Television that Tsien did not apply for naturalization. [20]


By the early 1940s, US Army Intelligence was already aware of allegations that Tsien was a Communist, but his security clearance was not suspended. [21] However, on June 6, 1950 his security clearance was revoked and Tsien was questioned by the FBI. Two weeks later Tsien announced that he would be resigning from Caltech and returning to China, which by then was effectively governed by the Communist Party of China led by Mao Zedong. [5] [22]

In August, Tsien had a conversation on the subject with the then Under Secretary of the Navy Dan A. Kimball, whom Tsien knew on a personal basis. After Tsien told him of the allegations, Kimball responded, "Hell, I don't think you're a Communist", at which point Tsien indicated that he still 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." [23]

After the firm in charge of arranging Tsien's move back to China tipped off U.S. Customs that some of the papers encountered among his possessions were marked "Secret" or "Confidential," U.S. officials seized them from a Pasadena warehouse. The U.S. Immigration and Nationalization Service issued a warrant for Tsien's arrest on August 25. Tsien claimed that the security-stamped documents 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." [24] Included in the material was a scrapbook with news clippings about the trials of those charged with atomic espionage, such as Klaus Fuchs. [25] Subsequent examination of the documents showed they contained no classified material. [6]

While at Caltech, Tsien had secretly attended meetings with 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. [26] Weinbaum's trial commenced on August 30 and both Frank Oppenheimer and Parsons testified against him. [27] Weinbaum was convicted of perjury and sentenced to four years. [28] Tsien 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 Tsien 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. This, together with an American Communist Party document from 1938 with Tsien's name on it, was used to argue that Tsien was a national security threat. Prosecutors also cited a cross-examination session where Tsien said, "I owe allegiance to the people of China" and would "certainly not" let the United States government make his decision for him as to whom he would owe allegiance to in the event of a conflict between the U.S. and communist China.

On April 26, 1951 Tsien was declared subject to deportation and forbidden from leaving Los Angeles County without permission, effectively placing him under house arrest. [23]

During this time Tsien wrote Engineering Cybernetics which was published by McGraw Hill in 1954. The book deals with the practice of stabilizing servomechanisms. In its 18 chapters it considers non-interacting controls of many-variable systems, control design by perturbation theory, and von Neumann's theory of error control (chapter 18). Ezra Krendel reviewed [29] the book, stating that it is "difficult to overstate the value of Tsien's book to those interested in the overall theory of complex control systems." Evidently Tsien's approach is primarily practical, as Krendel notes that for servomechanisms the "usual linear design criterion of stability is inadequate and other criteria arising from the physics of the problem must be used."

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 classified research duties. [5] Qian received support from his colleagues at Caltech during his incarceration, including president Lee DuBridge, who flew to Washington to argue Qian's case. Caltech appointed attorney Grant Cooper to defend Qian.

The travel ban on Qian was lifted on 4 August 1955 [6] and he resigned from Caltech shortly thereafter. Qian departed from Los Angeles aboard the SS President Cleveland in September 1955 amidst rumors that his release was a swap for 11 U.S. airmen held captive by China since the end of the Korean War. [30] Qian arrived at Hong Kong on 8 October 1955 and entered China via Kowloon–Canton Railway later that day.

Under Secretary Kimball, who had tried for several years to keep Qian in the U.S., commented on his treatment: "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]

Immediately upon his return, Qian began a remarkably successful career in rocket science, boosted by the reputation he garnered for his past achievements as well as Chinese state support for his nuclear research. He led and eventually became the father of the Chinese missile program, which constructed the Dongfeng ballistic missiles and the Long March space rockets.

Chinese nuclear program and other studies

In October 1956, he became the director of the Fifth Academy of the Ministry of National Defense, tasked with ballistic missile and nuclear weapons development. He was part of the overall effort that resulted in the successful "596" atomic bomb test on October 16, 1964, and the "Test No. 6" hydrogen bomb test on June 17, 1967. This was the fastest fission-to-fusion development in history at 32 months, compared to 86 months for the United States and 75 months for the USSR, and gave China a thermonuclear device ahead of major Western powers like France.

Qian's reputation as a prominent scientist who essentially defected from the United States to China gave him considerable influence in the era of Mao Zedong and afterward. Qian eventually rose through Party ranks to become a Central Committee member. He became associated with the China's Space Program - From Conception to Manned Spaceflight initiative.

Qian was elected as an academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 1957, a lifelong honor granted to Chinese scientists who have made significant advancements in their field. He organized scientific seminars and dedicated some of his time to training successors for his positions. [31]

He was heavily involved in the establishment of the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC) in 1958 and served as the Chairman of the Department of Modern Mechanics of the university for a number of years.

Outside of rocketry, Qian had a presence in numerous areas of study. He was among the creators of systematics, and made contributions to science and technology systems, somatic science, engineering science, military science, social science, the natural sciences, geography, philosophy, literature and art, and education. His advancements in the concepts, theories, and methods of the system science field include studying the open complex giant system. [32] [33] Additionally, he helped establish the Chinese school of complexity science.

From the 1980s onward, Qian had advocated the scientific investigation of traditional Chinese medicine, Qigong, and the concept of "special human body functions". He particularly encouraged scientists to accumulate observational data on qigong so that future scientific theories could be established. [34]

Later life

Qian Xuesen Library, Xi'an Jiaotong University Qian Xue Sen Tu Shu Guan .jpg
Qian Xuesen Library, Xi'an Jiaotong University

Qian retired in 1991 and lived quietly in Beijing, refusing to speak to Westerners. [35]

In 1979 Qian was awarded Caltech's Distinguished Alumni Award for his achievements. 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. Furthermore, in the early 1990s, the filing cabinets containing Qian's research work were offered to him by Caltech.

Qian was invited to visit the US by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics after the normalization of the Sino-US relationship, but he refused the invitation, having wanted a formal apology for his detention. In a reminiscence published in 2002, Marble stated that he believed Qian had "lost faith in the American government" but that he had "always had very warm feelings for the American people." [36]

The Chinese government launched its manned space program in 1992, reportedly with some help from Russia due to their extended history in space. Qian's research was used 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.

In 2008, he was named Aviation Week and Space Technology Person of the Year. The recognition was not intended as an honor, but is given to the person judged to have the greatest impact on aviation in the past year. [14] [37] Furthermore, that year China Central Television named Qian as one of the eleven most inspiring people in China. [38]

In July 2009, the Omega Alpha Association, an international systems engineering honor society, named Qian (H. S. Tsien) one of four Honorary Members. [39]

On October 31, 2009, Qian died at the age of 97 in Beijing. [40] [41]

A Chinese film production, Qian Xue Sen , directed by Zhang Jianya and starring Chen Kun as Qian was released on December 11, 2011 in both Asia and North America, [42] and on March 2, 2012 in China.

Science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, in his novel 2010: Odyssey Two, named a Chinese spaceship after him. The science fiction novel series The Expanse by James S. A. Corey also named a Martian spaceship after him (MCRN Xuesen). In the 1981 novel Noble House by James Clavell, the American-Chinese scientist who defected to China and helped develop the first atom bomb for China, Dr. Joseph Yu, is a fictionalized version of Dr. Qian Xuesen.

Scientific papers


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