'Father of space technology' Qian Xuesen dies at 98

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Qian Xuesen

China's keystone space scientist Qian Xuesen, widely acclaimed as the country's "father of space technology" and "king of rocketry", died of illness here Saturday morning at the age of 98.

In 1956, based on Qian's position paper on the country's defense and aviation industry, the central government set up an aviation industry committee, which later became the leading organization for China's missile and aviation programs.

Under the guidance of Qian, also known as Tsien Hsue-shen, China finished the blueprint on developing jet and rocket technology. He also played a significant role in developing the country's first artificial earth satellite.

"Mr. Qian used to hold academic seminars for us. We exchanged scientific ideas and wrote articles together. The whole time when we worked with Mr. Qian had a great influence on us," Yu Jingyuan, a senior researcher with the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation told Xinhua Saturday afternoon on hearing the news.

In one of Qian's legendary stories, a missile project team encountered repeated failures during the engine experiments in 1950s. Team members couldn't figure out what was wrong and turned to him. In a meeting, Qian paced around the room, listened to everyone's ideas and ask them further questions for about 40 minutes. He then hinted the team that they should take into account the high-frequency vibration when the engine was running.

He was right. In June 1964, China successfully created its first medium- and short-range missile, marking the start of the country's first missile defense system nuclear weapon.

During the man-made satellite project, when everyone else was not sure that the satellite would work perfectly in space given the limited testing facilities, Qian researched piles of documents and papers and wrote, "In my opinion, the satellite is done."

On April 24, 1970, "Dongfanghong-I (Red East 1)", the country's first man-made satellite, was successfully launched.

Yu Jingyuan said Qian had very deep understanding of his own profession and also had a wide knowledge regarding many other fields. "He was a true science leader and master with brilliant scientific and philosophic thinking."

Qian, a member of both the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Chinese Academy of Engineering, graduated from Shanghai Jiao Tong University in 1934.

In 1935, he went to study in the aviation department of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and later studied aviation engineering at the California Institute of Technology. In 1939, he received a doctorate in aviation and mathematics.

In 1947, 36-year-old Qian was already a professor at the Massachusetts Institute.

According to his son Qian Yonggang, the Kuomintang once invited Qian to come back but he refused. He returned to the mainland after the new China was founded.

However, Qian's road home was not smooth.

Documents show that amid the McCarthyism in the 1950s, allegations were made that he was a communist who stole confidential information about the U.S. government.

Qian was put in prison for 15 days, followed by a 5-year house arrest under surveillance of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

In June 1955, a letter from Qian managed to get out of the U.S. border and finally reached then Premier Zhou Enlai, resulting in Sino-U.S. talks which led to his release.

Together with his wife and two children, Qian sailed for more than a month before arriving in the mainland.

On the official BBS of the Shanghai Jiao Tong University, where Qian majored in mechanic engineering from 1929 to 1934, many alumni still couldn't believe the news while replies to the posts soon topped 850 in six hours.

Many regarded his death as "a superstar fell" and expressed their blessings for him -- "Dear Mr. Qian, rest in peace. We will never forget your achievements."

According to the Shanghai Jiao Tong University Press, the press is currently compiling a picture album of Qian and a collection of his writings based on 800-plus-page documents retrieved from the U.S. National Archives, which include details about his encounters with the U.S. government and his trip back home.

The picture book will be released soon and the writing compilation is due to come out in next spring.

Although Qian, a Hangzhou native in east China's Zhejiang Province, had long been a Beijing resident, his hometown friends feel close to him.

In one of the most popular local web portal "19 lou", more than 8,000 visitors read the news in three hours.

"Masters, you've always been the mental support for us post-70s generation but one by one you're gone... Our country needs more masters like you..." wrote a netizen named "sheliqiang" in a hundred-word reply.

On Saturday, a documentary about Qian, produced by Xinhua, has been broadcast on the Internet and the agency's TV channel. Taiwan's Eastern Television will also air the program on Saturday evening.

"He was a 'people's scientist' with firm political belief and pure moralities," researcher Yu Jingyuan said.

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