Wan Hu, the Chinese astronaut

Wan Hu, the Chinese astronaut, is really well known in China. And throughout the world. Wan Hu is a legendary Chinese official who was described in 20th century CE sources as the world’s first “astronaut” by being lifted by rockets into outer space. The crater Wan-Hoo on the far side of the Moon is named after him.

According to one ancient legend, Wan Hu, the Chinese astronaut, attempted a flight to the Moon using a large wicker chair to which were fastened forty-seven large rockets. Forty seven assistants, each armed with torches, rushed forward to light the fuses. In a moment, there was a tremendous roar accompanied by billowing clouds of smoke. When the smoke cleared, the flying chair and Wan Hu, the Chinese astronaut, were gone.

Wan Hu, the Chinese astronaut

A Chinese stargazer named Wan Hu, 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 Hu, the Chinese astronaut, a local government official, was obsessed by the stars and planned a rather hare-brained scheme to get himself closer to them. Something of a nutty professor character, Wan Hu 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.

Wan Hu’s pioneering spacecraft was built around a sturdy chair, two kites and forty-seven of the largest gunpowder-filled rockets he could lay his hands on. Come the launch day, Wan Hu, the Chinese astronaut, dressed himself in his imperial finery, strapped himself in the chair and called upon his forty-seven servants, each armed with a flaming torch, to light the forty-seven 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 Hu, the Chinese astronaut and his chair (a space object?) were nowhere to be seen. Whether Wan Hu actually made it or not has never been made clear; the prognosis does seem a little doubtful.

A precursor of the story of Wan Hu appeared in an article by John Elfreth Watkins published in the October 2, 1909 issue of Scientific American, but used the name Wang Tu instead of Wan Hu: “Tradition asserts that the first to sacrifice himself to the problem of flying was Wang Tu, a Chinese mandarin of about 2,000 years B.C. Who, having had constructed a pair of large, parallel and horizontal kites, seated himself in a chair fixed between them while forty-seven attendants each with a candle ignited forty-seven rockets placed beneath the apparatus. But the rocket under the chair exploded, burning the mandarin and so angered the Emperor that he ordered a severe paddling for Wang”.

The legend of “Wan Hu” was widely disseminated by an unreferenced account in Rockets and Jets by American author Herbert S. Zim in 1945. Another book from the same year, by George Edward Pendray, describes it as an “oft repeated tale of those early days”. Most authorities consider the story apocryphal.

Early in the sixteenth century, Wan decided to take advantage of China’s advanced rocket and fireworks technology to launch himself into outer space. He supposedly had a chair built with forty-seven rockets attached. On the day of lift-off, Wan, splendidly attired, climbed into his rocket chair and forty seven servants lit the fuses and then hastily ran for cover. There was a huge explosion. When the smoke cleared, Wan and the chair were gone, and was said never to have been seen again”. At the beginning of the 21st century CE, China finally launched a man into space and turned Wan Hu’s centuries-old dream into reality. In 2003, Yang Liwei was launched aboard Shenzhou 5, becoming the first person sent into space by the Chinese space program.

Despite the fact that the story is widely regarded false by the majority of authorities, Wan Hu found his place in popular culture. The television series MythBusters had attempted to recreate the Wan Hu’s flight by using materials which would have been available to him in an episode aired in 2004. In the experiment, the chair naturally exploded on the launch pad, and the crash test dummy showed what would have been the critical burns.

On the other hand, the Chinese Central Television had announced that Wan Hu was able to lift himself only by a foot using rockets; the TV contribution went in a show about inventions. Reportedly, in some Chinese versions of the Wan Hu story, he is depicted as an ill-fated pioneer of space travel who instead of becoming the first astronaut in history, was sadly burnt to death because of the explosion which was caused by the rockets.

The Wan-Hoo crater

Wan-Hoo, named after Wan Hu, the Chinese astronaut (a legendary Chinese figure who is alleged to be the first astronaut), is a lunar impact crater that is located on the Moon’s far side, and it cannot be seen directly from the Earth. It lies to the southwest of the huge walled plain Hertzsprung, within the outer skirt of ejecta. Just to the south-southwest of Wan-Hoo is the larger crater Paschen, and a little over two crater diameters to the northwest is Sechenov.

Like much of the surrounding terrain, this crater has been modified by the ejecta from Hertzsprung, and material from that impact encroaches along the inner walls and interior of Wan-Hoo. Attached to the east-south-eastern outer rim is a large satellite crater, Evans Q, belonging to Evans farther to the east. There is also a small, relatively fresh crater attached to the southeast, and a small, cup-shaped craterlet along the western rim.

Yang Liwei, the first Chinese astronaut

Yang Liwei (June, 21 1965), a military pilot and China National Space Administration astronaut, became in 2003 the first person sent into space by the Chinese space program. This mission, Shenzhou 5, made China the third country to independently send humans into space.

Yang was selected as an astronaut candidate in 1998 and has trained for space flight since then. He was launched into space aboard his Shenzhou 5 spacecraft atop a Long March 2F rocket from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on October 15, 2003. Although the first Chinese citizen in space, Yang Liwei is not the first person of Chinese origin in space. Shanghai-born Taylor Wang flew on Space Shuttle mission STS-51-B in 1985.