Launch Points: The Father of the Chinese Space Program

The Suicide Squad’s efforts spawned several important innovations, not the least of which was the development by Parsons of the first castable solid propellants, which made rocket motors more stable and storable. Conway says that later JPLers improved upon the original design, paving the way for the solid rocket motors that were used, for example, to help launch the space shuttles.

A lesser-known aspect of JPL’s origin story is the journey of Tsien Hsue-shen (PhD ’39), or Qian Xuesen as currently transliterated. Originally from China, Tsien was one of a handful of students to join the Suicide Squad in its early years and was one of the authors of the proposal submitted to the U.S. Army in 1943 that first used the name Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He went on to advise the Army on ballistic-missile guidance during World War II and later debriefed Nazi rocket scientists as a temporary lieutenant colonel. During the McCarthy era, Tsien was accused of having Communist leanings and had his security clearance revoked. When he tried to return to China, the U.S. government held him under virtual house arrest, but he was eventually able to go home. In China, he applied his vast knowledge of aerodynamics and rocket propulsion and through his work became known as the father of the Chinese missile and space programs.

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Photo: Tsieh Hsue-shen image courtesy of Archives, California Institute of Technology