Monday, May 2, 2011

China Outside the Blue Dot, Part 2

The First Modern Chinese Rocket Scientist
               In 1911, the year that Feng returned to China, Qian Xuesen was born just south of Shanghai, in the coastal city of Hangzhou. Feng’s logical successor, Qian was born to a prosperous family. His father was a member of the Ministry of Education in Beijing, and the boy moved up and down the northern coast for much of his childhood. He studied mechanical engineering in Shanghai, received high honors, and went to America.
               He received a scholarship and went to MIT in Boston, earned his masters, and then enrolled at Caltech, where he helped find the now famous Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. 
Qian Xuesen
              Then, in the 30’s, students shot small handmade rockets for their graduate theses. Now a NASA field center, JPL has since contracted the first American satellite and all the Mars rovers, and has long managed the giant, football field-sized satellite dishes we see in the movies.
                   Early names attached to the program are the occultist Jack Parsons and Theodore von Kármán, whose name will come up in a Google search if you are ever curious about just how far up one would have to go to enter outer space (the actual distinction, or the Kármán Line, is 62 miles above sea level).
               Qian earned his doctorate in 1939, and began to make a name for himself as a real rocket scientist in California. Kármán called him a genius and took him as a protégé. WWII began, and both were put to work copying German technology.   
               The Germans had, in the early 40’s, begun launching test rockets from a small town on their northern coast, and people began noticing large, strange things fall into the Baltic Sea. The Russians watched them, and so did the British. And then, in 1942, the Germans made history, sending the first man-made object across the Kármán Line, into outer space. Their V-2 rocket, which the Allies had only heard of, was also launched toward London, but that is another, more unfortunate story.
Qian, Kármán
            The Allies began racing German recovery boats across the channel, trying to find test wreckage.  The Russians sent Polish rebels to spy and speak with nearby farmers, who knew more than anyone else at the time. One test launch flew across the channel and into Sweden, who traded it to the Brits for several warplanes. A German POW later explained the mishap to interrogators. He claimed that mission control became so awestruck watching the rocket that he could no longer direct it, but only stared in amazement as it disappeared behind the clouds. That’s why it landed so far off course.
               As is known, the Germans eventually lost, but they made plans before they did. As their situation worsened, the Nazis began contracting the scientists who had been put to work elsewhere, and compiled a list of their smartest engineers. The Osenburg List, as it was called, was classified and kept under wraps, but one copy disappeared. It was later found stuffed in a toilet at Bonn University. A Polish lab assistant read it, shoved it in his coat and ran home. He sent the list on, and it eventually came to US intelligence, which took the list and waited. After the war, they sent Qian and Kármán to Germany to find the listed scientists and collect whatever they could. How the lab assistant knew the crumpled paper was worth digging out of the toilet is anyone’s guess.

(From left) Saturn V rocket, Dr. Von Braun, JFK
           Qian and Kármán ransacked major labs. The Russians got the rest. That single event—the rummaging around Germany’s countryside for valuable people, blue prints and aeronautical technology—was so pivotal to the next several decades that many stories have been written about it, imagining what vastly different outcomes were possible. A popular comic book has England reaching the test sites first, acquiring the scientists and winning the space race 15 years later.
               Among the surrendered Germans was Wernher von Braun, an SS Officer. He later met President John F Kennedy as the President promised the American people that Astronauts—not Cosmonauts—would walk on the moon before 1970. A big bull of a man, von Braun designed a great deal of NASA’s technology for years afterward, culminating in the design of the Saturn V rocket that sent the Apollo’s into Lunar orbit and landed Niel and Buzz on the moon.

Qian Arrested, Sent Home
               But despite his loyalty and reputation in the US, Qian came under scrutiny after he returned from Europe. The Soviets were gaining influence, and anti-communist sentiment spread across the US. In 1949, in the same year that he applied for US citizenship, Mao Zedong founded the People’s Republic of China. The Red Scare began, and Qian was followed and harassed. A year later his security clearance was revoked on grounds that he was a Communist spy, and he was put under house arrest until he was finally allowed to return to China in 1955, traded for American POWs. JPL and Caltech were dumbfounded, but so were many people in that time.
               Back on China’s northern coast, Qian was greeted by the Party and asked to head their space program, just in time for the beginnings of the space race.
               In 1957, Sputnik entered orbit. In ‘58, Qian and company built the Jiuquan Launch Center in the middle of nowhere, Inner Mongolia. Engineers on top of the launch tower can see for miles in any direction, looking at the same landscape that Marco Polo wandered across, and where Genghis-Khan once ruled.
               Their first missile was built that year as well—a reverse-engineered copy of a Russian missile—itself a highly inspired upgrade of the old German V-2 rocket. Qian was proud to see it fly away.
               He also designed the anti-ship Silkworm missile that decade, which was later used ad nauseam across the Middle East in the 1980’s and 90’s.
Mao and Khrushchev, friends for a while
               The Chinese Space Program received help from the Soviets, but not for long. Brothers in Communism, Chairman Mao and Nikolai Khrushchev none-the-less saw things quite differently. Khrushchev, the Russian Premier at the time, questioned the Chinese after the Dalai Lama fled to India, and once, at dinner, passed on a polite request on behalf of President Eisenhower, wondering at the release of several American POWs. The Chairman was bewildered. By 1959, Khrushchev called Soviet experts back home, and the space program was left handicapped. Construction of the Beijing subway system—designed with the help of Russian engineers—halted, and the tunnels sat empty for five years.
               In 1967 Yuri Gagarin went into orbit, becoming the first human to go to outer space. The Americans sent Alan Shepard up less than a month later.
Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin
               It took another few years to recover, but when they did, the plans became ambitious. Qian proposed a two-man capsule, a satellite program, and then another manned capsule. In 1966, registered under phony names at the Jingxi Hotel in Beijing, a small committee began planning. They discussed the design and cost of the manned space program, and the unique contributions that the Sino people could offer the space community. They left twenty days later, with a twenty-page report. Qian came in and out of the spotlight. The twenty-page report had a few readers, if any.
               A ten-year program was approved in 1966, with the immediate goal of sending a dog into orbit by July, with monkeys coming later. But the Cultural Revolution began that year, and neither animal made the trip. Despite Chairman Mao’s approval, the space program was crippled, like most everything at the time. The nation’s top aeronautical scientists, Qian included, came under ridicule by public vigilantes. The Director of the Institute of Geophysics was murdered, and Qian was severely demoted. Only several months later, amid the confusion, did the Communist Party offer a list of fifteen-or-so scientists that should be exempt from trouble.
            Apollo 11 landed on the moon on July 20th, 1969. Just before the lunar landing, Houston told the astronauts to be on the lookout for a lonely girl and her rabbit. Collins, the mission’s unsung member (but their best writer), confirmed that they’d “keep a close eye for the bunny girl.”
            Despite thousands of setbacks, Qian and company kept working, albeit without much official support. That year, they launched the first of their long family of Long March rockets, which carry payload up past the atmosphere before falling back down and quietly disappearing. The Long March rockets would launch nearly everything the Chinese would ever send into space.
Dong Fang Hong 1
In 1970, somehow, they held their hats and watched their first satellite lift off from the Jiuquan launch pad, and then ran back inside to press dials and stare at screens. Shaped like a disco ball, Dong Fang Hong I (The East is Red) remained operational for nearly four weeks, playing the then communist national anthem of the same name on repeat over radio. It circled the globe once every two hours and is still in orbit today, catalogued by the US as a known object in nearby space.
             Pictures of it resemble a prop from some old, forgotten sci-fi movie. Equipped with long antennas and several tiny, flashing bulbs, the satellite, just like Russia’s small Sputnik 1 and France’s weird looking Astérix, doesn’t look futuristic or state-of-the-art anymore; it looks fake. Public imagination seems to have moved on, leaving these realistic shapes and blueprints in the hands of green aliens visiting from Mars or maybe Saturn.
But Mao was impressed. Standing with Qian on the rostrum overlooking Tiananmen Square in Beijing, Mao personally approved the manned program unquestioningly (again), and told them to get to work.

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