"What came next, the legend goes, was an enormous bang."
China joined the elite club of nations who have sent men into space today with their launching of Yang Liwei into orbit, to which I say “Bully! Maybe it’ll prod our nation into setting its next great mission in space!”
But that’s not entirely the reason I’m writing tonight. I also want to showcase who may have been Imperial China’s first astronaut: Wan Hu.
Wan Hu lived around 1500 AD and, according to legend, dreamed of going where no man had gone before and set out to turn that dream into space age reality. According to the legend, Wan, a local government official, was obsessed by the stars and planned a rather harebrained scheme to get himself closer to them.
Something of a nutty professor character, Wan set out to make himself the world’s first astronaut. Picking up on China’s recently developed expertise in rocketry, he took up the task of building himself a space ship. Centuries before the Wright brothers took to the air or the Germans launched their V1 and V2 rockets, Wan was convinced that the weapons of war could also be a means of transportation and his ticket to the stars.
Wan’s pioneering spacecraft was built around a sturdy chair, two kites and 47 of the largest gunpowder-filled rockets he could lay his hands on. Come the launch day, Wan dressed himself in his imperial finery, strapped himself in the chair and called upon his 47 servants, each armed with a flaming torch, to light the 47 fuses. Their job done, the servants speedily retreated to a safe distance … and waited.
What came next, the legend goes, was an enormous bang. When the smoke eventually cleared, Wan and his chair were nowhere to be seen.
Whether Wan actually made it or not has never been made clear. The prognosis does seem a little doubtful. But despite the somewhat cranky nature of spacecraft he was certainly on the right track. Four-and-a-half centuries later and those same principles behind the first Chinese rockets did indeed lift Yuri Gagarin on his historic flight beyond Earth’s gravity. Another four decades on and China finally followed suit, launching a man into space and turning Wan Hu’s centuries-old dream into reality.
Moment of Zen