Secrecy News

Tsien Hsue-shen and the Secret of Time Travel

Tsien Hsue-shen, the 96-year-old architect of China’s ballistic missile program, was once a promising student of aeronautics in the United States, a protégé of Theodore von Kármán, and then a leading expert in the field, until he came under suspicion of espionage and was deported in September 1955.

According to a declassified 1998 Defense Intelligence Agency briefing, Tsien had “worked on [the] Titan [missile] program in [the] 1950s,” and his immigration to China constituted an unauthorized transfer of Titan technology to that communist country.

But it turns out that the DIA claim cannot be true, because the first contract for the Titan development program was not let until October 1955, after Tsien (also known as Qian Xuesen) had departed the United States.

“Unless Tsien possessed the secret of time travel, there is no way that he could have worked on the Titan ICBM before the program even started,” wrote historian and space policy expert Dwayne Day in an incisive account in The Space Review.

Mr. Day discusses the Tsien case, the 1999 Cox Committee on Chinese espionage that received the classified DIA briefing on Tsien and endorsed it uncritically, as well as the work of the late historian Iris Chang, Tsien’s biographer. See “A Dragon in Winter” by Dwayne A. Day, The Space Review, January 14.

In a follow-on piece this week, Mr. Day reports further on the 1998 Defense Intelligence Agency briefing regarding Tsien (pdf), which was declassified in response to a request from the Federation of American Scientists. See “Is a Secret a Lie if it Just Isn’t True?”, January 21.

Former CIA analyst Allen Thomson told Secrecy News that he recalled receiving another DIA briefing a decade ago in which it was asserted that Tsien had worked on Titan penetration aids.

“I have the impression that Tsien just became a convenient boogeyman and nobody checked up on the facts, or much cared about them,” Mr. Thomson said.

Tsien was named “2007 person of the year” by Aviation Week and Space Technology magazine (01/06/08) as a way of acknowledging China’s recent advances in space.

But at a celebration in Beijing in honor of his 96th birthday on December 11, his secretary Tu Yuanji said that Tsien had “stayed at home” most of the past year, “reading something every day while leading a peaceful life.” (Xinhua, 12/10/07).

0 thoughts on “Tsien Hsue-shen and the Secret of Time Travel

  1. I wonder if the dispute relates to the fact that many (most) major missile programs proceed years before a formal contract(s).

    Sometimes using government R&D funds squirreled away by imaginative government program managers (and their general/admiral bosses) or funds “borrowed” from other programs. Sometimes the contractor “loans” its own funds, effectively making a multi-year risk investment decision, that is easily and discretely recouped when the eventual cost plus missile contract is signed (or other contracts in the unlikely event a contract event does not occur).

    [That's an excellent observation, but in this case Tsien lost his security clearance in 1950, five years prior to his deportation and the subsequent start of the Titan program. So I think that rules out his participation in any pre-contract R&D on the program. --SA]

  2. How’s this for a possible explanation?

    The government probably starts a lot of their programs in secrecy, long before they are publicly acknowledged. Once the necessary funding becomes too large to conceal, they are then forced to make it official.

    What you discovered might be evidence that this program actually existed before it was officially authorized.

  3. Here’s some more speculation: the Chinese government planted the suspicions to get him deported and working for them.

  4. Dr. Tsien lost his clearance in 1950, The Titan program did NOT start in 1950, the evidence is clear on this.

    Dr. Tsien’s work up to 1950 is well known and public information – he is the father of the Space Shuttle (via the X-20) but he never succeed in time travel!

  5. The bottom line is Dr. Tsien was falsely accused, and treated wrongly, because of the McCarthyism in the 50′s. That’s unfortunate.

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