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Premier's visit sheds new light on rocket genius
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Premier Wen Jiabao visited several renowned scientists last week, including Qian Xuesen, 98, one of the founders of China's astronautics science.

It was the premier's fourth visit in recent years to the scientist who was father of China's rocket and satellite development.

Qian is also destined to occupy a prominent position in the history of Sino-American relations. Yet, even with a long-lasting legacy he will leave behind, many Chinese and Americans lack a complete and comprehensive understanding of his life and the enormous contribution to humanity he has made.

I was equally ignorant of his life even after many years living in the United States, until one day I picked up a copy of Qian's biography at a store in New Jersey.

I was immediately hooked. In the next few years, I read the book three times, and each time I couldn't hold back my tears.

"Thread of the Silkworm" was written by Iris Chang, author of "The Rape of Nanking."

NASA's rocket program can be partly traced back to Qian. His name is enshrined at Washington's National Air and Space Museum, together with such notables as Theodore von Karman and Wernher von Braun.

Qian's achievements both in the United States and China are extraordinary in many ways. In 1944, Qian and von Karman won a contract to design some of the first long-range ballistic missiles for the US Army. He was made a colonel in the US Air Force.

After the war, Qian became the youngest tenured full professor at MIT.

Of a quarter of a million Chinese students who have come to the US since Qian's time, no one has ever achieved anywhere close to what he had achieved in the US, let alone what he has achieved in China.

The Silkworm missile, the first generation of missiles Qian developed, is the root technology underlying several countries' missile programs.

Probably the most important lesson one can draw from that chapter of history is the danger and harm caused by McCarthyism.

The FBI's case against him at the time was riddled with holes. In fact, its mentality toward many foreign born or educated defense scientists, including J.R. Oppenheimer who was in charge of the nuclear program, the Manhattan project, is that they should all be presumed "seriously suspect until proven innocent."

Qian held his last press conference with Western reporters onboard the ship heading back to China. "I do not plan to come back. I have no reason to come back," he said.

As the Sino-US relationship improved greatly over the years, CalTech extended several invitations to the distinguished alumnus, even willing to offer an official apology on behalf of the US government.

But Qian never returned to the US. The old man keeps his promise to this day.

(The author is an associate professor of economics at the University of International Business and Economics. The views are his own. His email: johngong@gmail.com.)

(Shanghai Daily August 17, 2009)

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