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Taiwan in Time: Around the world 110 times

Taylor Wang, who spent his formative years in Taiwan, made a name for himself when he participated in the seventh mission on board the Space Shuttle Challenger as a payload specialist

By Han Cheung  /  Staff reporter

Taylor Wang’s experiments with the California Institute of Technology were selected for the seventh journey of Space Shuttle Challenger.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Taiwan in Time: April 25 to May 1

Before Taylor Wang (王贛駿) set out for outer space, he asked his NASA supervisors if he could bring with him a Republic of China flag — but his request was refused on the grounds that the US did not have diplomatic ties with the Taiwan-based government.

“I was really mad, but the commander told me it would be futile even if I took the issue to the White House,” he writes in his memoir, If I Can, So Can You (我能, 你也能). “But then he told me although it is against the rules to secretly bring items onto the shuttle, nobody was going to check. I thought what he said was very interesting and stopped arguing.”

That’s all he reveals in his memoir — and depending which side of the Taiwan Strait you ask, he either presented a People’s Republic of China flag to Beijing during his visit in July 1985, or handed a Republic of China flag that he allegedly hid in his undershirt to premier Yu Kuo-hwa (俞國華) when he arrived in Taiwan a month later. Some accounts say he did both.

In his memoir, he also writes that he agreed to carry several flags for the Wang clan association in Taiwan. In addition, the Los Angeles Times reported after his return that he also brought the Los Angeles and Glendale (where he resided) city flags into space, so it really is unclear how many flags he took with him.

Born in China and spending his formative years in Taiwan, Wang blasted off into space on April 29, 1985. He almost did not make it back — investigations on the Challenger accident a year later revealed that a similar disaster could have happened on Wang’s flight, according to a NASA oral history account by crew member Don Lind.

“You came within three-tenths of a second of dying,” Lind recalls the engineers telling him.

Wang was born during World War II. His father was a public servant who helped the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) ship items from the national treasury to Taiwan during their retreat after losing the Chinese Civil War. The Communists soon took over and he fled to Taiwan after they accused him of stealing from the country. His children arrived in 1951.

Wang writes that he was somewhat of a delinquent during his time at the Affiliated High School of National Taiwan Normal University and failed his college entrance exam. Studying on his own while working for a shipping company, he made it into University of California-Los Angeles in 1963 as a physics major.

A decade and a PhD later, Wang’s liquid drop dynamics experiments with the jet propulsion lab at California Institute of Technology were selected for the seventh journey of Space Shuttle Challenger, then set for 1980.

Wang’s team started modifying their experiments for zero gravity right away — but they had to wait another decade before the flight took place due to various delays.

“I focused on designing and testing the experiment instruments, and I always thought it would be an astronaut who would carry them out,” he writes. “I never thought they would want the scientist to personally go into space.”

Things changed in 1982 when NASA decided to allow non-astronaut scientists to join their space missions. Wang submitted an application, and a few months later he was officially named a crewmember as a “payload specialist” — a scientist chosen outside of the NASA astronaut selection process to conduct experiments or other duties.

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