On June 11, 2013, China launched Shenzhou 10, its tenth mission since it began its manned space program ten years ago on October 15, 2003. And if you are thinking—similar to our foot-in-the-mouth Vice President Biden, that China just copies Western technology—well, think again.
China's rockets are of a unique design. Unlike the straight-arrow U.S. rockets or the Russian design that looks like the buttress of a tree, China's rockets go up with a series of four firecracker-like engines around the base. It is the unique design of Tsien Hsueh-hsen, "China’s Werner von Braun."
How he came to head China’s space program is a sad American tragedy that you can read in American journalist Iris Chang’s biography: "Thread of the Silkworm."
Tsien was a brilliant young student from Republican-era [pre-Communist] China who won a scholarship to attend MIT. When his classmates thought their physics test was too hard and stormed up to the professor’s office to complain, the professor had posted Tsien’s perfect paper on his office door.
Tsien completed his doctorate at CalTech and was the WWII U.S. military officer sent to Germany to help U.S. scientists decide whether to bring back vonBraun and his team. Tsien held the Goddard Chair at our new Jet Propulsion Laboratory. In the midst of all of this success, he married the daughter of a Nationalist China Kuomintang official, and had two children.
Then his life was turned upside down by the stupidity and fear-mongering that can only come from Washington, DC. It was 1950 and the beginning of the McCarthy era witch-hunts that destroyed many scientists' careers. They mistook math table books for code books. Tsien was placed under house arrest in California for five years as a suspected Communist—something he was not.
In 1955, he and his family were deported to a now-Communist China. Premier Chou En-lai was eager to get him. Abandoned and scorned by the America he loved, Tsien had no other opportunity to use his talent. He became the father of China’s rocket systems: the East Wind, the notoriously effective Silkworm, and their early ICBM’s that were scaled up to become the 2003 boosters.
China did not have to borrow from anyone. China had a parallel program because we gave them their best rocket scientist. Tsien died in October of 2009. He got to see the next generation of his rockets launch China into manned orbit.
The Chinese public here is giddy and proud. They watch with as much excitement as Americans watched Walter Cronkite describe our Kennedy-era launches. China is committed to a space station, a manned moon landing and base, and even extending that mission to Mars. The role of a national space program in motivating a public cannot be overestimated.
Unfortunately, the U.S. has decided to privatize some of our space efforts, and no one cheers on "Go, Space-X" or any other corporation. But we will still be paying the bill. Our astronauts are hitching rides on Russian rockets. And the Russians are looking to downsize to unmanned missions.
Meanwhile, Japan and South Korea and India are gearing up their space programs, although China's is far in the lead and ten times larger than South Korea’s efforts. China has moved its launch pads to Hainan Island in the south in order to get more "throw" for each launch (a handicap the more northern Russians have always faced). A woman Chinese astronauts on this 15-day flight will broadcast physics lessons to Chinese students from in orbit.
The American student who today wants to pursue a career in space might well consider adding an Asian language minor to their degree.
Tsien Hsueh-hsen left one legacy that we have yet to exploit. With Tsien’s experience at MIT and CalTech, and then his experience getting research done as head of China's space program, he became very critical of the Chinese educational system and spoke up in the last days of his life. Former Premier Wen Jiaobao reported this general criticism from their discussion—but never revealed the details.
I suspect that his criticism involves China’s need to get off of teaching-to-the test memorization and adopt more questioning; a process they are beginning. If that is the case, for America (a country that is abandoning questioning for teaching-to-the-test), his wisdom could still save our educational system as well.