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The mysterious man behind the mushroom cloud

“There is a flower named Malan

To find it you must pass the Yangguan Pass

And then continue your journey until the Gobi Desert dotted with alhagi…”

Malan is a plant with strong vitality in the desert. Malan is also the cradle of China’s nuclear weapons.

Work hard for earth-shaking achievements

In 1945, the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, which shocked the world and accelerated the approaching of World War II to an end. Then, less than a year after the founding of new China, the United States quickly spread the flames of war to the Yalu River, repeatedly threatened to use nuclear weapons against China, and threatened to turn Xiamen into a second Hiroshima.

Mao Zedong and Nikita Khrushchev at Tian’anmen Rostrum

Faced with the nuclear threat from the United States, the CPC Central Committee made a decisive strategic decision to develop atomic bombs and nuclear weapons. After careful survey, the nuclear testing site was finally set up in the northwest ofLop Nor. It is a place that cannot be found on the map, a place that has since shocked the world time and again. It is Malan, the first nuclear testing base of China.

To develop the bomb as quickly as possible, Malan needed a lot of talents. In this sense, Harbin Military Academy of Engineering, founded for the purpose of national defense, is a key player in China’s “Two Bombs, One Satellite” cause.

From the foundation of the Malan Base, grand general Chen Geng, the founder of the Harbin Military Academy of Engineering and its first president, and the first deputy director of the National Defense Science and Technology Commission, made every effort to build the Malan Base: The school established the first atomic engineering department in China; teachers from the school such as Wang Ruzhi were among the first to come to the Base; many teachers and several hundred students of the school made outstanding contribution to the success of the first nuclear test; Malan Base’s first commander Zhang Yunyu was recommended by Chen Geng.

In August 1961, the department of atomic engineering was established in the Harbin Military Academy of Engineering in order to supply talents to the Base. The department, based on the atomic division of the former missile engineering department, consisted of three disciplines, namely nuclear weapons, radiation testing and nuclear power, for the department was set up “solely to meet the urgent need of the country to develop nuclear weapons for personnel training”. Therefore, the educational plan and curriculum were based on the opinions of experts from the institute of nuclear weapons of the Second Ministry of Machine Building.

In July 1963, researchers of the department’s teaching and research office 204 engaged in the “Atomic explosion shock wave light radiation test” project carried out chemical simulation explosion experiment at 43 Zhao in upper Songhua River. The picture is a group photo of President Liu Juying, the leaders of the department, some researchers of the research team, and the personnel of the 21st institute of National Defense Science and Technology Commission.

As a result, Harbin Military Academy of Engineering soon became the talent pool for China’s “Two Bombs, One Satellite” project. To ensure that China’s first atomic bomb would explode successfully in 1964 as planned, in 1963, under the urgent order from the Commission, the school’s first 45 students of the nuclear explosion factor test and analysis major from the department of atomic engineering graduated in early April, earlier than scheduled, and went to the atomic bomb research units and nuclear testing base. Thirty-eight of them joined the nuclear testing technology institute at the nuclear testing base. In that summer, more than 100 students from the atomic engineering department graduated and were assigned to the base and the nuclear industry research institute.

With an altitude of 3,200 meters, the Gold and Silver Grassland on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau is either snowy or sandy all the year, except in June and July when the sky is clear. Students from the school, driven by their lofty ideals, embarked on a journey to the Base, passed Yumen Pass, and arrived in the destination, living in what was called “cat’s eyes”, namely the low and narrow temporary workers sheds.

Camp in the nuclear testing site

Despite the hard life featuring bad shelter and poor food, they engaged in the atomic bomb plan. General Yu Mingde, who graduated from the Harbin Military Academy of Engineering in 1964 and came to the Base the same year, has been working and living here for more than 30 years. He has a poem describing the circumstance, “Over the past 30 years, we have experienced hardship and joy; Against the hard wind both people and the horses are exhausted, while the journey has to continue despite the sandy weather. Officers and soldiers are busy filling the north hole, so that pleasant leader may lie at easy at south hill. So what acquaintance have I made? Only the yellow Gobi Desert dotted with rose willows and antelopes.”

Yu Mingde

In the Gobi Desert which of eight hundred square miles without a human habitation, they lived in the cellar, drank bitter water, fought against cold and heat, ate coarse grain and grass, and marched forward bravely against the desert wind and sand. In the difficult environment that challenges ordinary people’s imagination, they struggled and made earthshaking achievements. On October 16, 1964, on the 100-meter iron tower there was placed the atomic bomb, and Zhang Yunyu held the golden key to start the nuclear explosion. Han Yunti, a graduate student of the atomic engineeringdepartment from the Harbin Military Academy of Engineering, accurately pressed the button to start China’s first atomic bomb, completing an epoch-making action.

Han Yunti pressed the button for the detonation of China’s first atomic bomb

A mushroom cloud exploded over Lop Nor in Xinjiang, marking that China became the fifth nuclear-armed country following the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain and France. The whole world was shocked. At that right moment, in a chest-deep trench more than 60 kilometers from the blast site, 10 cadets witnessed the sacred historic moment.

When the mushroom cloud rose to the air, everyone present at the scene turned their eyes to the observation window to witness this historic moment. Wearing gas masks and risking their lives, however, the ten students rushed to the scene to collect the scientific data that would be key to prove the explosion was a nuclear one. The ten students are all alumni of the sixth department (department of chemical defense) of the Harbin Military Academy of Engineering.

Scientific and technical personnel searched equipment amid the lingering mushroom cloud

Qian Xuesen once said, “Harbin Military Academy of Engineering has made great contributions to China’s ‘Two Bombs, One Satellite’ project.” His remarks are supported by a figure: More than a third of the staff at Malan Base were from Harbin Military Academy of Engineering. As Liu Juying, the second president of the university put it, “It is our students who were responsible for the escort, suspend, and launch of China’s first atomic bomb; it is our students who saw the command, manufacture and launch of our first satellite; and the same is true with China’s intercontinental missile. At that time, entire classes of our students were sent to the missile launch site. In the desolate Malan, half of the students of our department, or more than 100 people were sent to participate in the development of atomic bombs, carrying forward the spirit of our school during their hard work. Some have devoted 30 years or even 40 years to the cause there.”

Among them was Ma Guohui, who “slept with a hydrogen bomb on his head” and spent 33 years working at the mysterious Gobi Desert nuclear testing site, rising from a technician to a commander.

In 1966, Ma Guohui, who had just graduated from Harbin Military Academy of Engineering for more than one year, was responsible for the installation and commissioning of the target room of the explosion chamber, as China conducted on-site preparations for the hydrogen bomb principle testing. The target room was to be installed on the tower over 100 meters high. In order to avoid the influence of strong light during the day, it could only be installed at night. So that he and a colleague worked on the tower for more than 20 days and nights. By the time everything was ready it was the second half of the night, and the detonator would be put in a few hours, and the next day it would be ready to explode. Tired and sleepy, they thought nothing of danger or radioactivity, but just wanted to have a good sleep. They found that the circular table on which the hydrogen bomb was placed jutted out just enough to make a pillow. So they slept on the platform, with hydrogen bombs on their heads, and soon fell asleep in the tower blast chamber at constant temperature…

Ma Guohui recalled, “At that time, working on the iron tower were over 20 students who graduated from our school in 1965. And since each major would keep secret to each other, it is not until we met did we realize the major and job of each other!” Shao Nailin, who was in charge of inserting the detonator at that time, was his classmate.

These scientific and technological talents in their prime stayed in Lop Nor, the “sea of death” for more than a decade, decades or even a lifetime, composing magnificent poems rooted in the Gobi Desert. Thanks to their hard work, our country achieved remarkable results faced limited time and numbers of testing. According to statistics, before the formal moratorium on nuclear testing, the United States conducted more than 1,000 nuclear tests, Russia conducted 700 nuclear tests, while China conducted only a few dozen. Compared with them, our country has conducted only a few nuclear tests, but in the limited number of nuclear tests, our achievements have attracted worldwide attention.

As it were, the school’s students have lived up to the expectations of their old president, while those of NUDT carry forward the legacy of Harbin Military Academy of Engineering.

What the Base has impressed Lu Huafeng (pseudonym) most is that “the ambitious have the chance to do things and the able to get things done”. In 2008, Lu applied for a job in Malan after he graduated from NUDT with a doctor degree. Much to his surprise, as he reported for duty, the base leader greeted him at the gate of the camp in person. Shortly after arriving at the Base, the former head of the headquarters assigned a task to the base during his inspection. The leader of the base invited Lu who was to undertake the task to the office, giving him a detailed account of the project’s background and relevant information. Both the leadership and colleagues gave him the greatest help and support in work. Now, after working 10 years at the Base, Lu has applied for five national invention patents, won a third prize of military technological progress. Also, he has two technical achievements that have passed expert appraisal, awaiting evaluation for military technological progress award. He said, “It is thanks to the Base that I can concentrate on my work.”

Zuo Lan graduated from NUDT in 2015. When informed that he was to work in Gobi Desert, he felt doubt and confused since he was brought up in a coastal area. As he entered the gate of the Base, however, he found himself in a desert oasis, or a land of idyllic beauty. He carefully decorated his dormitory, worked hard, and embarked on a new life journey.

Wang Simin, who was admitted to NUDT from Malan, resolutely applied to return to Malan after graduation as an undergraduate. A versatile girl, her favorite song is “Love of Malan”. Every word and sentence show her love for this land.

Unlike Wang Simin, Wang Junjie, who graduated from NUDT as an undergraduate in 2016, came here by accident. With excellent grades, Wang thought, when choosing a big unit, that he might be assigned to a company in Beijing, but he ended up in Malan. As time passed, he has stayed there for the third straight year, and he starts to take a liking for the place for its quiet and pure environment. He said, “I feel myself lucky to become a member of the Base and engaged myself in its important and pioneering work as a fresh undergraduate.”

Selfless and anonymous

Malan is a mysterious land.

Hongshan is a mountain basin sitting in the center of Mount Tianshan, with only a simple road to connect it to the outside world. The pass used to be guarded by sentry posts which, for half a century had sealed off that part of the valley as a secret.

Graduates from both Harbin Military Academy of Engineering and now NUDT have volunteered to work in the Base, relinquishing the superior conditions otherwise they should have enjoyed. A metaphor says, “In the base, if you compare people from NUDT to the Han people, then those from other universities are national minority.”

Zhang Aiping checked the impact pressure recorder developed by the university for testing the explosive power of the first atomic bomb.

Here in the Base, our country has successfully carried out dozens of tests of atomic bombs, hydrogen bombs, missiles and nuclear weapons, and in all these tests were involved their efforts. Here, the Malan spirit of “hard work for earth-shaking deeds, selfless dedication and anonymity” has taken shape and carried forward by them.

Fu Xinli (first from left), Hua Zha (second from left), Zhang Mingzhi (third from left) and Zhao Yijun (fourth from left) pose for a photo in the Western Hills of Beijing during the simulation experiment in Beijing

Even now, around the living area of the Base surrounded by green trees, there is still the Gobi Desert with “no birds in the sky, no grass on the ground, and the wind blowing up the stones”. In summer, the surface temperature can reach 60 or 70 degrees, and the air temperature is in the 40s. In winter, the temperature drops to -20 degrees. A gale of force eight or nine will blow up the yellow sand, billowing dust and blocking out the sun.

Chen Xi

Chen Xi, a trainee from NUDT who came to the Base in 2010, has spent three years there. Now a military instructor, he recalls the days when he served as a soldier and a troop leader, cannot help but says with emotion, “It was a hard time, but it's worth it.”

If the spirit of struggling against difficulties is common in the NUDTpeople, then the quiet devotion is the unique quality of the graduates from the university who have come to work in Malan. Their hard work has contributed greatly to the cause of national defense but they have to have their names concealed. They are engaged in core and crucial state secrets that should never be disclosed to the public, and bear on the overall strategic, political and diplomatic interests of national security. Although in the Base they are working for earthshaking things, but in order to be strictly confidential, they can only stay incognito.

Han Yunti

Han Yunti, who pressed the button on China's first atomic bomb, was required to keep it absolutely secret even from his closest family, throughout his involvement in the development and testing of nuclear weapons. He was unaware that his wife Zhang Wei gave birth to their first child just over half a month before the atomic explosion. Nor did he know that his wife just managed a narrow escape from a severe postpartum hemorrhage. The mother and baby lived in a small room of only six square meters, an arrangement by the Xiehe Hospital to show special care. The room had no door, and it was her colleagues who helped hang a cloth curtain there. At night, Zhang Wei wept sadly with the baby in her arms, knowing not where her husband had gone, leaving her to face the challenges and difficulties alone!

Ma Guohui

Ma Guohui, who has worked at the Base for 33 years, recalls, “In those days, most young people who were sent to the Base could not meet their lovers for a long time and finally had to break up because they could not communicate with each other due to confidentiality requirements. Some waited until retirement to find a partner, others never got married. The majority of people who got married are separated from their spouse, and cannot see each other for years.” Among them is Huang Yunxing (pseudonym). In 1984, Huang graduated from the second department (physics department) of NUDT and went to work in the Base. Now he has been working there for 35 years, separating from his wife for years.

Cheng Kaijia

For those engaged in scientific research, the most painful thing is that they cannot publish their academic research results. Their names are not allowed to appear in scientific journals, nor are they themselves to be seen in public. All the officers and soldiers, academicians and generals, experts in science and technology, and ordinary soldiers who have taken part in nuclear tests have to keep what they had done a secret forever. Cheng Kaijia, a well-known hero of the “Two Bombs, One Satellite” project, winner of “Bayi Medal”, was publicly recognized after staying anonymous for more than 20 years. Huang Yunxing once participated in the processing of the application materials of academician Cheng Kaijia. He recalled that after sending the materials collected from 1963 to 1984, the application was directly approved and Cheng won the special award for national science and technology progress. And Huang is also aware that what he is doing now may not be publicly reported for decades to come, or may never be known by the public.

Lin Junde -A distinguished scientist dedicated to the cause of national defense technology

Lin Junde (1938-2012), born in Yongchun County, Fujian Province, was a model worker who had devoted his life to the cause of national defense technology, and a researcher at a base. He joined the army in 1960 and was awarded the first level of professional technology. He was a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering. He had spent 50 years working in the Gobi Desert, participating in the nuclear tests there. Over 70, he was still active on the front line of scientific research and experimentation. In more than 20 days from the diagnosis of advanced bile duct cancer to his death, he used the hospital room as a battlefield, competing against the clock and fighting for the cause of national defense technology until the last breath of his life. He died of illness in May 2012. In January 2013, the Central Military Commission posthumously awarded him the honorary title of “Outstanding Scientist Dedicated to National Defense-related Scientific and Technological Development”. President Xi Jinping called on all members of the armed forces to learn from comrade Lin Junde and make greater contributions to building a people’s army that follows the Party, fights to win and forges exemplary conduct,, and safeguarding China’s sovereignty, security and development interests.

Being unknown to the public does not mean to be unsuccessful. Rather, their lives shine in their quiet struggle. Former researcher of the Base and academician Lin Junde was such a person. As the new hero whose picture is respected by the whole army, he is to be remembered forever for his spiritual strength.

Lin Junde (first from left)

After graduating from the Institute of Engineering in Harbin in 1963, he was assigned a task to head the preparations for our first nuclear test, thus beginning a lifetime of nuclear testing. He remained incognito in Lop Nor for 52 years and participated in all of China’s nuclear tests. Alas, our hero had spent half a lifetime working amid the sand and grass!

After being hospitalized with cancer, Lin was still concerned about the unfinished scientific research projects. “I want to work, I can’t lie down, for once I lie down I will not get up.” And that was repeated most by him during his last days. On the last day, he made nine requests to get out of bed to work, launching a solemn and stirring charge towards the cause to which he had devoted all his life with all his strength, until he sorted out the technical ideas of a major scientific research subject that he cared about most and left it to later generations.

The spirit of Lin has deeply influenced Jiang Tingxue (pseudonym), a graduate from NUDT who came to the Base in 2004. For him, there never seems to be enough time. There is no such thing as eight working hours or spare time, for working overtime is normal while the opposite is abnormal. With perseverance, he furthered his study and gained his master degree and doctor degree. Now he is a senior engineer, deputy director of a unit of the Base. Top priority is given by him to scientific research. And he never concerns himself about whether he can publish his findings or get the award. Like academician Lin, he dedicates his life to scientific research, and feel the greatest happiness from it.

The rich legacy, once being carried forward, will become unlimited material creativity. After half a century of efforts, the graduates from NUDT, like the simple, quietly blooming Malan flowers, have taken root in the desert and grown up luxuriantly. President Xi pointed out that building a strong military is a great cause of continuous struggle, and each generation has its own mission. From Harbin Military Academy of Engineering to NUDT, the Malan Spirit is continuously carried forward by generations of their graduates who are committed to national defense.

Source: WeChat Official Account of NUDT

Authors: Wang Yunli, Yao Hong, Zou Yilan, Sheng Meigang, Yan Jin, Liu Daikun

Editor: Chen Si

Pictures: from the Internet