Are we about to embark on a new space race?
In January, China became the first sovereign state to soft-land a probe on the far side of the moon. It’s no secret that China is working toward a future crewed mission.
This presents a serious challenge to American supremacy in space. President Trump has responded by pushing for a crewed lunar mission as early as 2024, with the ultimate aim of looking toward Mars.
In addition to accelerating the United States’ own space program, Trump’s advisers are working to stall Chinese technological development by inhibiting access to the U.S. commercial space sector. They are also working to limit international intellectual exchange. Chinese students are experiencing long delays in processing their visas, and White House adviser Stephen Miller has even called for a blanket visa ban. Others are advocating a blacklist of companies from “aggressor states.”
But such a combative approach would be a disaster. During the Cold War, the United States used such tactics to undermine China’s technological development, and it backfired badly. An effort to deport Chinese scientists became a strategic own goal. Engineering experts, embittered at their rejection, hastened the process of technology transfer while paradoxically limiting American influence on Chinese science.
The Chinese flaunted this history, a not-so-veiled warning to the United States, with their chosen lunar landing site: the von Kármán crater.
Theodore von Kármán was a professor at the California Institute of Technology and Columbia University, and the mastermind of early aeronautical and astronautical engineering in the United States. Along with his graduate student Frank J. Malina, he pioneered the original American rocket program and co-founded NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. His mathematical approaches to aerodynamics gave us the sweptback wings of the modern jet aircraft.
In the tumultuous days of the 1940s, high-speed aircraft and rockets weren’t just scientific developments — they were cutting-edge technologies thought to confer serious strategic advantage. As World War II gave way to the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union jostled to acquire this new expertise. Governments were on high alert to ferret out potential spying, creating a tense political environment for those involved in classified research.
The need for secrecy and the potential threat of communism created a problem for von Kármán and his team, because many in his orbit were already Communists, having joined the party in the 1930s. These included Malina and his friend, Chinese rocketeer Hsue-Shen Tsien (Qian Xuesen).
Tsien and Malina had joined up in 1938 because they thought that the Communist Party was the most effective vehicle for tackling the rise of fascism abroad and systemic racism at home. They hated that the local Pasadena swimming pool ran one “blacks only” session on a Wednesday morning, only for the pool to be drained and cleaned for whites to return on Thursday morning.
And yet, despite their convictions, Caltech’s radical rocketeers came to have misgivings about the direction of communism, both in the United States and abroad. They hated the secret nonaggression pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany that was revealed in 1939, and they drifted away from communism throughout the 1940s.
Malina was equally disappointed to see his rocket weaponized as the world’s first nuclear missile, the Corporal. He eventually quit practical rocketry to pursue peace at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in Paris, a move that usefully placed him beyond the reach of the FBI.
Not so for Tsien. Against the backdrop of the 1948 presidential election, he was accused of espionage along with eight other Chinese and Jewish colleagues. There wasn’t any evidence that Tsien was a spy; rather his critique of fascism and his former membership in the Communist Party made him a liability to detractors such as Louis Gerhardus Dunn, the director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who contacted the FBI with unfounded allegations.
When Tsien attempted to return to China in 1949, he was thwarted by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which cried foul at the engineering papers packed up in his luggage. Tsien wasn’t a spy. The material was declassified and out of date. But its author presented more of a problem: What should they do with a U.S.-trained Chinese rocket expert with the liberty to move? Criminal charges were not likely, but as Caltech’s president Lee DuBridge put it, Tsien “wasn’t going back to China to grow apples.”
In fact, Tsien didn’t want to return to China. He asked for von Kármán’s help — the professor was by this time a senior Pentagon adviser — but was left bitterly disappointed in his old mentor. The crowning misery for Tsien was the INS attempt to deport him to demonstrate their uncompromising anti-communist stance.
Even the State Department could see that handing over a rocket expert to a rival communist state under the guise of anti-communism wasn’t the wisest plan. For four years, Tsien’s departure was prohibited, and he was confined to Los Angeles County, forced to report to the INS office once a month. He couldn’t even go to the beach. Eventually, without giving Tsien any choice, he was exchanged for American prisoners of war.
This detention made him resentful. “I do not plan to come back,” the indignant scientist told reporters at Los Angeles Harbor in September 1955. “I plan to do my best to help Chinese people to build up their nation.”
Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai was naturally delighted. With all that Tsien had learned from von Kármán, China went from being a country capable of producing bicycles and a simple car to being the third country to independently send humans into orbit.
It took a few years, but the United States eventually felt the sting of its mistake. Derivatives of Tsien’s Silkworm ballistic missile found their way to other countries and were fired at American forces or their allies, first in the 1991 Persian Gulf War and, most recently, by Yemen’s Houthi rebels in 2016.
The lesson: The impulse to undertake diplomatic hostility, to engage in antagonistic competition rather than cooperation in space, produced precisely the outcome it purported to avoid. Instead of stifling China’s space program, it dramatically accelerated it.
These days, as the FBI is once again canceling visas of Chinese professors, it’s plain that of the two space powers, China is most alert to the power of this history. Landing its rover in the midst of the von Kármán crater has sent a clear, if provocative, message: Nothing propels China’s planetary ambitions more than misguided attempts by the United States to play hardball.