Today marks the 47th anniversary of American astronaut Neil Armstrong’s giant leap for mankind, that moment when human beings first stepped onto the surface of the moon. Except that according to an article in the October 2, 1909, issue of Scientific American, written by John Elfreth Watkins, Armstrong may not have actually been the first.
Watkins relays an old Chinese legend that claims an official by the name of Wan Hu (or sometimes Wang Tu or Wan Hoo, depending on the source) launched a lunar mission around 2000 BC. According to this legend, Wan Hu strapped forty-seven small rockets to a large wicker chair, sat down, and told his assistants to light him up. Neither the man nor his rocket chair were ever seen again, perhaps an indication of success. And so after Soviet probe Zond 3 did a flyby of the moon in 1965, a crater on the dark side of the moon was deservedly named for famed Chinese astronaut.
Of course some people believe that Wan Hu faked the entire stunt with the assistance of some fancy camera work under the direction of Stanley Kubrick, a scheme long covered over by a joint effort from the Chinese government and the cryogenically frozen head of Walt Disney. The evidence is far too involved to go into detail here, but it stems from the numerous drawings of the events that, to the well trained eye, reveal peculiar shadow angles, an oddly marked rock, and an unfurling flag, among other truly alarming details. Don’t even get me started on the secret clues buried within The Shining.
Now, I’m not generally a big believer in conspiracy theories, but this one, to me, seems entirely plausible. Because it turns out that prior to the 9th century, the Chinese didn’t yet have gunpowder, and they most certainly weren’t launching rockets in 2000 BC, strapped to a chair or not.
About thirty-five years after the publication of the Scientific American article, American author Herbert S. Zim offered a thoughtful update to the tale in his book Rockets and Jets. He logically placed the story of Wan Hu in the early 16th century. And it was some time after that when the Chinese began to adopt the tale, eventually erecting a statue of this hero of space travel at the Xichang Satellite Launch Center.
But if that’s not enough to convince you that the whole thing might just be made up, MythBusters Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage attempted to recreate Wan Hu’s famous flight using technology that would have been available in 16th century China. They weren’t successful. And when they cheated and used more modern technology in an attempt to duplicate the results, their trusty dummy Buster wound up blown to bits and, most notably, not on the moon.
So, I think it’s safe to assume the conspiracy theorists have it right this time. Wan Hu could not have been the first man to step on the moon. The honor still belongs to Neil Armstrong, and thankfully, there’s no reasonable debate about that.