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The Wired UK article The epic tale of China's out of this world plan for space domination says:

A Chinese citizen co-founded the JPL, but these days no Chinese officials are allowed on a Nasa site thanks to the US embargo.

Who was that? In fact, who are the "founders" of JPL in general?

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  • $\begingroup$ NOTE: Nasa (first letter capitalization only for proper noun) seems to be standard in the UK, please don't edit it and corrupt the block quote's authenticity. $\endgroup$ – uhoh Feb 5 at 3:14
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    $\begingroup$ Arthur C. Clarke named a spaceship after him. $\endgroup$ – Organic Marble Feb 5 at 4:46
  • $\begingroup$ @OrganicMarble was it Qian Xuesen, mentioned in this tweet? $\endgroup$ – uhoh May 16 at 4:13
  • $\begingroup$ Clarke transliterated it as 'Tsien' but it's probably the same guy. In a classic organizational stupidity move, he was run out of the country for 'security' reasons and proceeded to be the father of China's space program. $\endgroup$ – Organic Marble May 16 at 4:14
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    $\begingroup$ Tell me about it, even the street signs here use one of the two totally different transliteration systems, depending on local tastes and politics. @@ $\endgroup$ – uhoh May 16 at 4:17
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tl;dr: Except for the 1939 lunar lander, it seems the projects undertaken during the "JPL's Army years" were related to weaponry (WW2 and after) rather than space exploration. So while the name "Jet Propulsion Laboratory" remained the same, the actual entity we associate with space exploration was not really the one founded by said individuals. The linked article in the question glosses over this difference and tries to create the impression that Qian's JPL is associated with NASA or the exploration of space in some way, which is not the case.

Sputnik changed everything.


From https://trs.jpl.nasa.gov/handle/2014/39699 Keymeulen, Didier; Myers, John; Newton, Jason; Csaszar, Ambrus; et al. (2006). Humanoids for Lunar and Planetary Surface Operations. Jet Propulsion Laboratory, National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Pasadena, CA: JPL TRS 1992+ Humanoids for lunar and planetary surface operations

JPL is a child of Caltech: founded in 1936 as a graduate student project under Professor Theodore von Kármán.

  • JPL led the development of US rocket technology in WWII.
  • Caltech and JPL staff founded Aerojet Corporation, the first US rocket firm.
  • JPL worked in collaboration with Werner von Braun and German rocket engineers to create the US missile program from 1946 to 1958.
  • JPL worked under a US Army Ballistic Missile Agency contract to design and build the Corporal and Sergeant, the first US ballistic missiles.
  • After Sputnik, JPL was transferred to NASA upon its creation in 1958.

Qian Xuesen (钱学森) was indeed part of the beginnings of what was first called the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1943:

In 1943, Tsien and two other members of their rocketry group drafted the first document to use the name Jet Propulsion Laboratory, originally a proposal to the Army for developing missiles in response to Germany's V-2 rocket. This led to Private A, which flew in 1944, and later the Corporal, the WAC Corporal, and other designs.

Von Kármán wrote of Tsien, "At the age of 36, he was an undisputed genius whose work was providing an enormous impetus to advances in high-speed aerodynamics and jet propulsion."13 During this time, he worked on designing an intercontinental space plane, which would later inspire the X-20 Dyna-Soar, a precursor to the American Space Shuttle.

13Perrett, Bradley (2008-01-06). "Qian Xuesen Laid Foundation For Space Rise in China". Aviation Week and Space Technology. 168 (1). Archived from the original on 2011-05-21. Retrieved 2 February 2015.

though it was primarily for weapons design during WW2, and substantially different than the JPL we know today.

According to Wikipedia's Jet Propulsion Laboratory:

n 1941, Malina, Parsons, Forman, Martin Summerfield, and pilot Homer Bushey demonstrated the first jet-assisted takeoff (JATO) rockets to the Army. In 1943, von Kármán, Malina, Parsons, and Forman established the Aerojet Corporation to manufacture JATO rockets. The project took on the name Jet Propulsion Laboratory in November 1943, formally becoming an Army facility operated under contract by the university. (emphasis added)

[...]

During JPL's Army years, the laboratory developed two deployed weapon systems, the MGM-5 Corporal and MGM-29 Sergeant intermediate range ballistic missiles. These missiles were the first US ballistic missiles developed at JPL.7 It also developed a number of other weapons system prototypes, such as the Loki anti-aircraft missile system, and the forerunner of the Aerobee sounding rocket. At various times, it carried out rocket testing at the White Sands Proving Ground, Edwards Air Force Base, and Goldstone, California. A lunar lander was also developed in 1938-39 which influenced design of the Apollo Lunar Module in the 1960s.6

6Launius, Roger (2002). To Reach High Frontier, A History of U.S. Launch Vehicles. University of Kentucky. pp. 39–42.

7Keymeulen, Didier; Myers, John; Newton, Jason; Csaszar, Ambrus; et al. (2006). Humanoids for Lunar and Planetary Surface Operations. Jet Propulsion Laboratory, National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Pasadena, CA: JPL TRS 1992+ Humanoids for lunar and planetary surface operations

Except for the 1939 lunar lander, it seems the projects undertaken were related to weaponry rather than space exploration. So while the name "Jet Propulsion Laboratory" remained the same, the actual entity we associate with space exploration was not really founded by said individuals.

enter image description here enter image description here

Source Original and zoomed/sharpened. I cant' find a larger size, sorry.

NOVEMBER 20, 1943

First Use of the Name "Jet Propulsion Laboratory"

Theodore von Kármán and his Caltech research team propose to the U.S. Army Air Corps a research project to understand, duplicate and reach beyond the German rocket program. In the proposal, the team refers to their organization for the first time as "the Jet Propulsion Laboratory."

enter image description here

Source

The young rocketeers were encouraged by Caltech professor and aerodynamicist Theodore von Karman. After the mid-November tests, he secured space for them on the Caltech campus. He also insisted that the experimenters know the mathematics that described the performance of their rocket motors.

Over time, the inventors' explosive and noisy motors proved too dangerous for the campus. In 1940, a new facility -- across the Arroyo from the original test site -- was built in the foothills of Pasadena. Three test stands and tarpaper shacks marked the first buildings of what von Karman would name the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in November 1943. He would become JPL's first director.

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  • $\begingroup$ Your conclusion is incorrect. While the function of the organization may have changed, it's still the same organization that was founded in 1936. Military origins and all. $\endgroup$ – Hobbes Feb 5 at 13:17
  • $\begingroup$ @Hobbes I'm keeping focus on the question and the block-quoted passage. The author tries to create some parity between present day NASA and the 1936 JPL. In which tangible ways (beyond the three ascii characters) is it the same, and in what ways is it different, and which of those is greater? I'm happy to see you've posted a different answer, thanks! $\endgroup$ – uhoh Feb 5 at 13:32
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for your answer. "related to" is not the same thing as "the same thing as". Apple computer still has tangible, visceral aspects of the Jobs/Woz beginnings, HP test equipment has a direct lineage to the oscillators garage-built by Hewlett and Packard. I don't see any trace whatsoever of missiles as weapons in present-day JPL. $\endgroup$ – uhoh Feb 5 at 13:42
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    $\begingroup$ I still think it's funny that the word "rocket" was politically incorrect so they had to call it "jet". $\endgroup$ – Organic Marble Feb 5 at 14:08
  • $\begingroup$ Was the name actually chosen for optics/political purposes? “Jet propulsion” in the broad sense includes rockets; it’s only in common use that “jet” means air-breathing. $\endgroup$ – Russell Borogove Feb 5 at 17:13
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Wikipedia:

JPL traces its beginnings to 1936 in the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology (GALCIT) when the first set of rocket experiments were carried out in the Arroyo Seco. Caltech graduate students Frank Malina, Qian Xuesen, Weld Arnold, and Apollo M. O. Smith, along with Jack Parsons and Edward S. Forman, tested a small, alcohol-fueled motor to gather data for Malina's graduate thesis.[citation needed] Malina's thesis advisor was engineer/aerodynamicist Theodore von Kármán, who eventually arranged for U.S. Army financial support for this "GALCIT Rocket Project" in 1939. In 1941, Malina, Parsons, Forman, Martin Summerfield, and pilot Homer Bushey demonstrated the first jet-assisted takeoff (JATO) rockets to the Army. In 1943, von Kármán, Malina, Parsons, and Forman established the Aerojet Corporation to manufacture JATO rockets. The project took on the name Jet Propulsion Laboratory in November 1943, formally becoming an Army facility operated under contract by the university.[3][4][5][6]

Name changes, scope changes, parent organization changes and funding changes do not mean the JPL we know today is not related to the 1936 informal organization.

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