The Man Who Took China to Space
Hsue-Shen Tsien was driven out of the United States by political paranoia. Will the same happen to a new generation of Chinese talent?
Amid the escalating political and economic tensions across the Pacific, the 350,000 Chinese students in the United States are caught in the crossfire. The single biggest international student group in the world, many first came to the United States for its openness, but some now fear that America will soon slam its door on them as the trade war escalates. President Donald Trump’s administration sees Chinese students as potential perpetrators of espionage and intellectual property theft, and it has tightened restrictions for Chinese citizens at U.S. universities by shortening student visa durations for technology and mathematics students and intensifying visa scrutiny. White House senior advisor Stephen Miller even recommended a blanket visa ban on Chinese students.
The United States could be throwing away a huge pool of talent—and not for the first time. In the 1940s and 1950s, some of China’s most brilliant scholars sought a home in the United States only to be chased away. Perhaps the most representative case is that of Hsue-Shen Tsien (also rendered as Qian Xuesen), a Beijing-raised, California-trained scientist who co-founded NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL)—and created China’s space program when he was driven out of the United States. Many in the United States saw Tsien as China’s “evil genius”—an American-made Dr. Frankenstein who, as the 1999 Cox Report concluded, probably incorrectly, deliberately stole U.S. technologies for China’s missile development—but his exile from the United States was forced by a paranoid and xenophobic politics.
A graduate of Shanghai’s National Chiao Tung University (today Shanghai Jiao Tong University), Tsien moved to the United States in 1935 to study at the renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology and later at the California Institute of Technology under Theodore von Karman, an authoritative figure in aeronautics—where his near-perfect grades astonished American classmates.
Enthralled by the idea of space travel, the Chinese newcomer joined Caltech’s “Suicide Squad,” a student group of five devoted to rocketry research—a rather eccentric group at the time. But the U.S. military needed all the brainpower it could muster and soon recognized rocketry’s significance, funding the Suicide Squad” to become the JPL.
Despite being a foreign citizen—albeit one from a U.S. ally, the Republic of China—Tsien received security clearance to work on classified projects at the JPL. He helped develop the first U.S. jet engines, then moved on to Washington as an advisor to the Defense Department in 1945. On V-E Day, he traveled to Germany alongside top American scientists to inspect Germany’s military technologies. In New York, after the war, Tsien devised the idea of a rocket-like aircraft that would fly passengers from New York to California in an hour—gaining nationwide fame in 1949 as his story appeared in the New York Times and Time magazine.
He visited China in 1947, only to find the country in deep turmoil. With a new bride, Tsien returned to the United States in months. The couple mailed in their citizenship application while expecting the birth of their first child—evidently, they were ready to make the United States their new home.
That wasn’t to be. After the loss of China to communism triggered the second Red Scare in the United States, the government accused Tsien of being a member of Pasadena’s Communist Party. Party meetings were held at the Caltech scientist Sidney Weinbaum’s residence, the FBI said. Tsien, who had indeed attended these meetings, was baffled—he had thought of them merely as social gatherings and denied being a party member.
Tsien was nevertheless set to be deported. However, another order that had forbidden Tsien from leaving the country—as letting go of the genius would endanger U.S. national security—contradicted the deportation order. He was, as the journalist Milton Viorst wrote in Esquire in 1967, “free on bail but confined to [Los Angeles] county, not at liberty to go but not welcome to stay.”
Iris Chang, the author of Thread of the Silkworm, perhaps the most comprehensive account of Tsien’s life, believed that much of the indictment was based on shaky grounds. Even if any were true, most of the so-called communists were, by today’s standards, simply liberal scholars who had no intention to overthrow the U.S. government or defect to the Soviet Union.
His life in limbo lasted until 1955, when, after Chinese diplomats urged his release in Geneva, the United States lifted the exit ban, enabling the Immigration and Naturalization Service to execute his deportation. Tsien left in September, along with his wife and two American-born children—and he never returned.
At the time of Tsien’s repatriation, Chinese scientists barely had any understanding of rockets. Tsien’s first research institute was nothing like the JPL—it only had one telephone. Yet, under Tsien’s leadership, it took Chinese scientists only 14 years to launch China’s first satellite into space, marking the success of Mao Zedong’s “Two Bombs, One Satellite” project following China’s first atomic and hydrogen bomb tests.
1955 wasn’t exactly the best year to settle down permanently in Beijing. American paranoia had forced Tsien into a situation where he now had to repeatedly profess loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party to survive. Tsien, a foreign-trained intellectual from an affluent household who was married to the daughter of a Kuomintang official, had to constantly reaffirm his unswerving loyalty as Red Guards conducted a witch hunt for counterrevolutionaries during the Cultural Revolution.
Tsien had to pick sides cleverly. When a coup, sanctioned by the central government, was staged in Tsien’s ministry amid the Cultural Revolution, he immediately said he would recognize the new leadership. While those who resisted were dismissed and persecuted, Tsien’s decision allowed him to further his scientific career.
But Tsien’s political opportunism failed him at times, too. He had praised Lin Biao, Mao’s right-hand man, not long before Lin was killed in an attempt to flee to the Soviet Union; immediately after Mao’s death in 1976, Tsien criticized Deng Xiaoping—the man who would later lead economic reforms—for advocating “counterrevolutionary revisionism.” He got into significant—albeit not fatal—trouble for these mistakes.
Honored as the father of China’s space program, Tsien died in 2009, two years after the launch of Chang’e, China’s own lunar exploration project. A decade later, in 2019, a Chang’e probe would be the first to explore the lunar far side, landing on the Von Karman crater—named after the Hungarian-American man who opened rocketry’s doors for Tsien.
The JPL became a subsidiary of NASA in 1958, only a few years after the United States deported its Chinese-born co-founder. In The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom, John Pomfret attributes the replacement of Soviet scientific principles with American ones to Tsien’s influence—a seemingly insignificant but pivotal step for China’s split with the Soviet Union, which led to U.S. President Richard Nixon’s eventual handshake with Mao.
Tsien wanted an official apology from the United States, but it never arrived. “It was the stupidest thing this country ever did,” former Secretary of the Navy Dan Kimball later said, “He was no more a communist than I was, and we forced him to go.”
When Hsue-Shen Tsien came to MIT on a Boxer Indemnity Scholarship, so did his first cousin, Hsue-Chu Tsien. Like his cousin two years of his senior, Hsue-Chu graduated from the same Shanghai university and had the same major. From MIT, Hsue-Shen moved on to Caltech; Hsue-Chu, too, remained in the United States and helped the Republic of China import American plants during the Sino-Japanese War.
But the cousins’ lives split. In 1949, the year when the FBI arrested Hsue-Shen in Pasadena, Hsue-Chu became a U.S. citizen, settling down after having lived in Switzerland, China, and India. Hsue-Shen was ordered to leave, but Hsue-Chu continued his scientific career at Boeing, where he became chief engineer. Roger Y. Tsien, his youngest son, was the Nobel Prize laureate in chemistry in 2008. His oldest son, Richard W. Tsien, is a prominent neurobiologist.
Hsue-Chu Tsien’s legacy remains in the United States. Perhaps, in a parallel universe, so does his cousin’s.
Since Tsien, the United States and China have shifted from enemies to cautious allies, to potential friends, and now to strategic rivals. “If there is any conclusion for today to be drawn from the Tsien affair, it is perhaps that the greatest U.S. security losses can be self-inflicted,” the Christian Science Monitor wrote in 2000.
The same lesson holds true today. Among the 350,000 Chinese students in the United States, the vast majority are merely civilians who have no connections to or affection for China’s government. While the majority end up seeking careers back home, that’s as much because of the difficulty of staying on in the United States as it is from any desire to remain in China.
Visa restrictions and paranoia don’t add to America’s appeal. For tech talent, China is more appealing than it was in 1955, and Washington needs to put serious thought into keeping them in the United States. Rather than blindly labeling students as intellectual property thieves, the United States should reiterate its value of openness—an advantage over its adversaries—by retaining the Chinese talent that it needs to compete in the global economy. Otherwise, the Hsue-Shen Tsiens of the future will be working in Shanghai, not Silicon Valley.