Tsien Hsue-shen and the Secret of Time Travel

01.22.08 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

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).