Sunday, December 10, 2006

Taikonauts and Nazis

The US space program had lots of help from European-trained engineers who fled or were forced out of top positions by the Nazis during World War II. Before this, the United States had lots of production capacity, but little in the way of technical scientific expertise. The US, being practical-minded, never invested a great deal in basic research, unlike Germany, France, and other European nations who saw basic science as an end in itself.

When the Nazis took over, they made a point to kick out of academic posts and government positions those whose views or race they saw as suspect. Many of these people fled to the US, where they helped in the war effort and later, the Cold War and the Space Race.

I bring this up because I just read an article in the South China Morning Post about China's race to the moon. In it, one man features prominently: Tsien Hsuehshen (Qian Xueshen). He is basically the father of China's space program. And get this: he got his start by getting kicked out of the US during the McCarthy period. Here's what The Economist says, in an article from April 11, 2002, "Taikonauts are go":

China's space programme was unwittingly spurred by the Americans. Nearly 100 scientists of Chinese ancestry were thrown out during the McCarthyite era and sent to the recently formed People's Republic. One of them was Tsien Hsueshen, an aeronautical engineer who was an expert in the new technology of jet propulsion. In 1956 he became head of China's new missile programme.

Dr Tsien's team, working initially with Russian help and then—after the rupture of relations between the Soviet Union and the People's Republic in 1959—on its own, built up a secretive but successful operation. It was based, like the Soviet and American programmes, on knowledge gleaned from Germany's second-world-war V-2 missile project. Before the rupture, the Russians gave China a slightly improved version of the V-2, known as the R-2, and the team took it to pieces to find out how it worked. By the time the Russians had left, Chinese engineers were expert enough to strike out on their own. Within a few months, they had successfully launched their first home-grown R-2, known as Dong Feng (East Wind).

Paranoia has a nasty self-defeating effect.


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