Puritans Inhaling Swamp Gas

Sometime in late February of 1639, a man by the name of James Everell, along with two of his Puritan buddies, rowed his boat up the Muddy River of Massachusetts and spotted a weird light in the sky. The light appeared as a large flame, about three yards square, and then began to dart around the sky, taking on a different shape, like that of a swine, presumably still on fire.

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Maybe that fancy, dancy light was just the aliens’ way of inviting the men to a pig roast. photo credit: eric dickman Pig Roast ’05 via photopin (license)

After a few mesmerizing hours of watching the flaming pig streak back and forth across the sky, the three men realized that during that time, they had somehow ended up a mile upstream from where they’d been with no recollection of how they’d gotten there.

But here’s the really strange part. These three pals actually told people they’d watched a flaming pig fly through the night sky. By people, I mean they told John Winthrop, then governor of the Massachusetts Colony and among the puritanest of Puritans. On March 1, 1639 he wrote down the account in his now well-studied diary. It’s clear he found the tale a little odd, but also that he believed the tale-tellers to be credible men who generally made pretty bang-up witnesses.

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John Winthrop. If this man told me he’d been abducted by aliens, I’d probably believe him. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

There are a few possible explanations, then, for what these reliable men saw. First, and obviously most likely, this could be the earliest written account of a North American UFO sighting and alien abduction. Alternatively, these gentlemen could have been boating to a safe distance away from the stocks before overindulging in their puritanical beer. Or of course the whole thing could just be an example of spontaneously igniting swamp gas reflecting off Venus.

Governor Winthrop proposed another explanation nearly five years later when two similar events occurred. During the second of these later events, a voice accompanied the mysterious lights. Winthrop’s most reliable witnesses said they heard the words, “Boy! Boy! Come away! Come away!”

The governor notes fourteen days later, the same voice could be heard again. The reason, he suggests, is that the colony had recently experienced a nearby shipwreck resulting in an explosion. All the victims’ bodies were accounted for except one. Logically, Winthrop theorized the Devil had possessed the body and was now using it, along with a freaky light show, to terrorize the colonists. Hmm. Maybe.

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This guy knows what I’m talking about. photo credit: c r i s They’re Coming To Take Me Away / 135.365 via photopin (license)

Then again, perhaps a bunch of enthusiastic otherworldly visitors were calling to their human would-be abductees as they have so many times in generations since. Personally, I’m a little skeptical, but perhaps you’re not. Perhaps you, or someone whose story you find credible, have experienced something that to the rest of us might seem a little far out there.

If so, then National Alien Abduction Day, observed in the US on March 20 every year for at least the last decade, may be just the day for you. As for me, I think I’ll avoid the swamp gas and the puritanical beer that day. Perhaps I’ll fashion a nice aluminum foil hat, too, just in case.

Earthquakes and Alien Probe Technology

At around 9:00 on the morning of January 19, 1916, Baxter, Missouri resident Mrs. Frank Jackson heard a terrible noise and received a frightful shock. The sound would later be described as something like discharged dynamite followed by a series of heavy strikes against a large drum and fading off to the north, disappearing completely after a few minutes. Initial reports in the local paper didn’t identify the source of the noise, but rather requested the opinions of readers as to what may have caused the disturbance.

One of the most useful observations came from some of the Jacksons’ neighbors who were working in a field nearby and claimed to have been peppered by gravel falling from the sky. And of course there was the 611 gram stone that crashed through the Jacksons’ roof, hit a log beam, and lodged itself in their attic.

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If I’m honest, I’m sure I have a lot of junk in my attic, too. Probably not from space, but still. photo credit: kakov Chelyabinsk meteorite via photopin (license)

What had fallen from the sky was a meteorite, made of, well, spacey meteorite stuff, as verified twenty years later by American Meteorite Laboratory founder H. H. Nininger. It measured somewhere around 13 cm across. While the impact of such a stone isn’t going to dramatically alter the earth’s climate or cause mass extinction, it’s certainly large enough to weigh down the corner of a tarp on a breezy day or scare the stuffing out of someone when it crashes through the roof of their house.

There’s not much word on what poor Mrs. Jackson thought as the meteorite came crashing into her house, but perhaps we can make some assumptions based on the reactions of those who witnessed a fiery meteoroid falling through the sky above southeast Michigan on Tuesday of this week.

If Twitter is any indication, the good folks in Michigan, though not quite as terrified as Oregonians facing the trauma of pumping their own gas, were pretty freaked out by the incident. Captured on dashcam video, the meteoroid, which scientists estimate was about two yards across when it entered Earth’s atmosphere, exploded in the sky, causing a small Earthquake and an awfully loud boom.

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I’m a big fan of shooting stars, but I admit if I actually saw a huge one that exploded with a loud boom and an earthquake, I might get a little jumpy. photo credit: tonynetone meteorite hits Thunder Bay, Ontario via photopin (license)

Witnesses expressed confusion and then a great deal of concern as they processed whether Armageddon had come at last. Within minutes, conspiracy theorists took to the Internet to caution against initiating any contact with the many small meteorites scientists believe are now spread across the state. The main concern, obviously, is that surviving meteorites are actually alien technology, likely parts of otherworldly probes, of the variety that have been sent frequently to Earth by malevolent alien forces since at least since the 15th century. Seems legit to me.

NASA, on the other hand, has seemed relatively flippant about the whole event, more or less stating that though massive balls of fire flying into the Earth’s atmosphere are relatively rare, slightly less massive balls of fire do it all the time. So maybe everyone should just calm down.

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I just have to assume that if aliens have really been sending probes to Earth for at least hundreds of years, they aren’t really in that much of a hurry to invade.

Despite both the dire warnings and the nonchalance, the hunt is on for meteorite pieces. NASA has made a few suggestions for where people might have luck looking, but is clear that any chunks found will probably be pretty small and might not really be worth all that much.

But when H. H. Nininger verified the Baxter meteorite as the real thing, he was quick to make an offer. I haven’t been able to find how much he paid for this delightful addition to his extensive meteor collection, but hopefully it was at least enough to cover the repairs to the Jacksons’ roof.

Since Tuesday’s heavenly event, experts have explained to the media that the value of a meteorite will depend largely on its makeup. Whereas the more common iron will net you somewhere between 50 cents and $5 per gram, a stone meteorite might fetch up to $20 per gram. Now if it’s made of alien probe technology, well, I suppose there’s no telling how high the price might go.

In the Path of an Eclipse: Really Dark, Kind of Weird, and Definitely Goofy-Looking

In my corner of the world, we have a very exciting event coming up. If you’re in the US, and particularly if you are anywhere along the line from about Salem, Oregon to Charleston, South Carolina, you’ve probably heard about the total eclipse we’ll be witnessing on Monday, August 21.

It’s a pretty big deal, worthy of donning goofy-looking glasses and taking a few minutes out of your day to say, “Huh. It’s really dark out, which is definitely kind of weird.”

The reason we’re all so excited is that a total solar eclipse hasn’t been visible in the Continental US in 38 years. It’s also pretty cool that the path of totality will hit nine different states with more than 10 million people living within the moon’s full shadow. Another 28 million people live within 60 miles of that path, and everyone in the US should be able to see at least a partial eclipse.

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I was going to model the glasses myself, but they were pretty goofy-looking. Instead I enlisted the help of my buddy Sock Monkey Steve, who never seems to mind looking goofy for a good cause.

Though not all of St. Louis is directly in the path, a good chunk of it is, including about 1.3 million residents, and the hundreds of thousands of people that will be clogging the roads to get to the perfect viewing spot, causing all the rest of us to be late for work.

And why not? It’s not like this happens all the time. In fact, St. Louis has not seen a total solar eclipse since 1442, when St. Louis didn’t exist yet, so technically, I suppose it’s never happened in the city before. It’s an event that’s worth experiencing, and one that’s certainly worth remembering.

Because you never know when it might come in handy to call on a memory like that. Like, for example, if you happen to have the unfortunate experience of getting conked on the head only to wake up in the court of King Arthur in June of 528, it would be useful to know that on the day the king has decided to execute you, you will be in the path of totality of a historical eclipse.

This is what happened to Mark Twain’s 19th century Connecticut Yankee Hank Morgan. A man suddenly out of time and facing public execution, Hank drew on his knowledge of the disappearing sun to convince the court he was a great magician, even greater than Merlin, and that were he not given back his life, he’d never allow the sun to return. It’s an amusing scene in which Hank has to use some misdirection and not all that clever stall tactics to get the timing to turn out right, since he doesn’t know precisely how long the eclipse will last. But it eventually all works out, and Hank gets to live on to destroy history another day.

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If you ever find yourself in this situation, don’t panic. Just remember your eclipse dates. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court trailer, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I know Hank’s story is not exactly historical, but it was written in the 1880s so maybe you can cut me a little slack on this one. The scene also may have been inspired by an actual historical event from February of 1504, when Christopher Columbus used some old-timey Google magic to convince the natives of Jamaica to continue supplying his shipwrecked crew long after the actions of said crew had pretty much convinced the natives they didn’t much want to.

Because Columbus knew something the natives didn’t know, that the full moon was planning to hide behind the earth for a little bit on the night of February 29. All he had to do was to claim this temporary disappearance as a sign from his angry God. Suddenly he had a native population that was more interested in helping the crew survive until help arrived.

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Columbus’s old-timey Google magic came from a widely used almanac by astronomer Johannes Müller von Königsberg (or Regiomantanus). By Camille Flammarion – Astronomie Populaire 1879, p231 fig. 86, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

And if it worked for Columbus, it might work for you someday, because even though to the best of my knowledge no one in the real world has yet been conked on the head and been transported to sixth century England, plenty of elements of science fiction have come more or less true. Really, I think it’s safest to be prepared.

But just in case you ever do find yourself in that situation, you should know that Mark Twain, who did not have the advantage of Google (or evidently an almanac), got the date wrong. There was no total solar eclipse on June 21 of 528. Hank’s plan wouldn’t have worked and he would have gotten himself burned at the stake.

But there really is going to be an eclipse on Monday. If you’re in the path of this much anticipated solar event, get yourself some goofy-looking glasses (from a reliably safe source) and enjoy because it’s going to get really dark out, and it will definitely be kind of weird. Then maybe brush up on your eclipse history, because you never know when you might get conked on the head.

How Otto the Visionary Became a Well-Rounded Person

Several years ago when we were the mommies of much littler littles, a friend of mine asked me for some mommy advice. My friend grew up in Upstate New York, where winters are bitter cold and ponds form thick ice. Now that she found herself raising her own children in Central Illinois where winter can be bitterly cold for days at a time, and frozen ponds can sometimes be a touch unpredictable, she was looking for a place to teach her children the crucial life skill of ice skating. Exasperated at having to sign them up for lessons at a nearby ice arena, she shook her head and said, “Well I guess that’s just what you have to do so your kid can learn to skate. I mean, how did you learn?”

My friend was truly shocked when I answered, “I didn’t.”

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I’m no human locomotion expert, but I think the guy in the yellow pants is just about to bite it on the ice. January Scene, 1820, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

My family had a box of ice skates in various sizes shoved away in the basement, in case we ever happened upon a good thick patch of ice. As far as I can remember we never did. And though my town didn’t have an indoor (or outdoor) ice rink, we lived about thirty miles from a town that did have one. I remember attending an ice skating party one time. Or it might have been twice.

That was it. That’s the only experience I’d ever had with ice skating. Sure there were hockey leagues in the next town and I had friends whose families made the effort to get plenty of ice time. But we weren’t that family. I didn’t mind a bit. When I did make it out onto the ice, I mostly just fell. A lot.

No. I mean, A LOT. I think I made it around the entire rink one full time, death grip on the wall the entire way, before I gave up with very cold tears streaming down my cheeks.

I can honestly say that I never felt myself disadvantaged by my lack of this particular skill. Clearly there is a cultural difference between my friend and me. Ice skating is a skill she views as essential to becoming a well-rounded individual. It’s important to her.

It was also important to the people of Southern Finland as much as 4000 years ago. Historians believe that’s when someone (let’s just call him Otto the Visionary) first decided sliding across the slippery ice on a thin set of blades was probably a good idea. And it might have been, because according to human locomotion expert, Federico Formenti, the savings in energy and time while traveling on foot among the many lakes in the southern portion of Finland, might have been well worth the effort it took Otto to strap a couple of animal bones to his shoes.

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Just saving some time, taking a shortcut across the ice. photo credit: R.A. Killmer How is this possible? via photopin (license)

The ice skate has, of course, been improved since those early years. Skating spread through much of Europe and by the 17th century had become a beloved cold weather activity spawning skating clubs, competitions, and innovations that soon distinguished the sports of speed and figure skating. Then in the 19th century, Canadians started playing ice hockey. It’s anyone’s guess what they did before that. Curling, perhaps?

Despite the wide range of ways to enjoy the sport, and even though I do become an expert on figure skating every four years as I comment “knowledgably” about the slight wobble on the landing of the otherwise flawless triple axel that will surely cost the favored skater the gold, I don’t feel the need to participate.

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Evidence. Sorry it’s so blurry. That’s bound to happen when you just landed a sick triple axel. Or when you hand your 12-year-old your phone and say, “Take a picture of me looking awesome!”

Except this past weekend when I did. My twelve-year-old son, who has been skating a few times (and is obviously a more well-rounded individual than his mother), had the opportunity to go skating with a youth group he’s a part of. And because I’m super lucky, I got assigned as a chaperone for the outing.

When I chaperone, I generally like to participate. I get to know the youth better when I do, we share some laughs and make some memories. Fun is had. Trust is built. That’s all well and good. But remember the death grip on the wall and the cold tears streaming down my cheeks? I do. And I did.

I admit I was scared, but my son wanted me to give it a go so I decided I would. Sure I fell a few times, bruising both my hip and my dignity a little, and if I’m being perfectly honest, there was probably a slight wobble on the landing of my triple axel. But for a kid from Illinois, who has never felt the need to conserve energy or time by strapping blades to my shoes and sliding across the ice, I think I did okay. And, I’m probably now a more well-rounded person. Maybe even a visionary.

 

That Gift in the Top of Your Closet

In February of 1862, President Abraham Lincoln followed up on a letter that had been sent to his predecessor by Somdetch Phra Paramendr Maha Mongut, the king of Siam. The king had made a generous offer to the people of the United States, suggesting that he would be happy to send a gift of a sufficient number of elephants to breed in the wilds of the nation. And it certainly wasn’t the bizarre offer it might seem like today. Highly intelligent and useful in transporting goods and raising circus tents, Asian elephants enjoyed a long history as generous gifts.

President Lincoln crafted a highly diplomatic response, explaining that America did not offer environmental conditions conducive to wild elephant success and that when it came to transporting goods, we were scraping by okay with our newfangled steam engines. But he was also careful to thank the king for his very gracious offer.

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Consular Flag of Thailand, featuring an auspicious elephant. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Because some elephants, particularly the rare albino ones, have long been considered sacred in Siam and throughout Southeast Asia, given their relationship to Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha). The story goes that Gautama’s mother dreamt of a white elephant descending from heaven on the very night she conceived her son.

So white elephants (and some not-so-white ones that are found to possess other traits earning them the title of “auspicious elephants”) have long been considered the sacred property of the reigning king in Siam. On occasion, the king also may have chosen to honor deserving courtiers by giving them the gift of trusting a white elephant to their care.

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Royal Elephant Stable where the King of Siam used to keep his White Elephants (today: The Royal Elephant National Museum, Bangkok) By Hdamm (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
It was a generous gift, but there were drawbacks. The amazing and rare creatures were too sacred to be put to work raising circus tents, had to be specially housed, and had to eat. A lot. A white elephant gift from the king, then, was not exactly something to be desired. It could easily burden a man into poverty. And it was a gift that couldn’t be refused.

Allegedly this is where the term “white elephant gift” came from, to refer to something you might give or receive that no one really wants. I don’t know about you, but over the years, I have been to my share of white elephant gift exchanges (also referred to as a Yankee Swap, or a Naughty Santa, which is NOT what it sounds like). These events usually come complete with rules that allow participants to trade the terrible gift they receive for someone else’s terrible gift. The idea, of course, is that one man’s trash may actually be another man’s treasure.

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Another man’s treasure. photo credit: sukigirl74 teacosy top view via photopin (license)

And who knows? Perhaps you have been searching for years for a tea cozy that’s the perfect shade of cerulean, and maybe your friend Ted has been just dying to get his hands on the Duran Duran cassette gathering dust in the top of your closet since the early 90’s.

But if your exchange doesn’t result in you taking home a gift you actually kind of want, don’t fear. You had a good time with friends, enjoying some laughs as everyone attempted to steal the same ceramic Yoda m&m dispenser. Besides you can always shove your unfortunate gift in the top of your closet and dust it off for next time.

Because over the last few years, the notion of re-gifting has gained some traction as a way to both rein in Holiday spending and create less waste. There are helpful re-gifting etiquette guidelines online and in October of 2008, then governor of Colorado, Bill Ritter declared December 18 as “National Re-gifting Day.” Frankly, I’m not sure the governor of Colorado has that kind of national authority. 

At least some people agree with me because a quick Internet search reveals that National Re-gifting Day can also be observed on either December 15, or on the last Thursday before Christmas, which to be fair to Governor Ritter will sometimes fall on the 18th. But I suppose it doesn’t matter when you mark it on the calendar because as other important festive occasions approach, National Re-gifting Day is a holiday that you can always pull off the dusty top shelf of your closet, stick in recycled gift bag, and celebrate again and again.

And That’s Why You Shouldn’t Mess with a Babylonian Pig

This year my oldest son began middle school. It’s going well, for the most part. He’s thriving in the world of increased social opportunities, having found a group of buddies that all seem to get one another pretty well. And despite the increase in workload, he’s enjoying the academic challenges middle school is bringing. He’s even almost a little more organized and responsible than he used to be. Well, he’s working on it anyway.

We’ve had a few hurdles to jump, but it’s more or less off to a good start. Or at least I thought it was until he came home the other day and as he ran down his list of homework and other tiny scraps of information he occasionally lets slip out, he casually mentioned that his classmates had sentenced him to death.

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Actually I’m pretty impressed with his skills if he managed to run off with one of these things. photo credit: jpellgen Largest Boar via photopin (license)

As you can imagine, a number of follow-up questions flashed though my mind. The answers to some of them were that he stole a pig, his accuser was a landowner, much wealthier and more important than he was, and that she tried to shoot him as he fled the scene, but the law didn’t seem to care about the attempted murder. Just the pig thief, even though he requested leniency and so did a number of character witnesses who swore he would never do such a thing unless he were starving. And, you know, he’s a middle school boy, so he might feel like he’s starving most of the time.

Finally, after enjoying my mystified expression for a moment, he went on to explain that his social studies class had been studying Hammurabi’s Code. Just in case it’s been as long since your middle school social studies days as it has since mine, I’ll explain.

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What a constitution looked like in 1754 BC. CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=818801

In 1901, while working on a site in the ancient city of Susa (in modern day Iran), Egyptologist Gustave Jéquier discovered a stone stele, over seven feet tall, covered in cuneiform script. When translated, the 44 columns and 28 paragraphs were shown to contain a total of 282 laws, which, dating to somewhere around 1754 BC, form one of the oldest written codes of law known.

Established under the Babylonian king Hammurabi, the laws cover a wide range of issues, including contract terms, liability, fraud, divorce, and the theft of a pig by a starving sixth grader in social studies class.

The code is also the first good example history has thus far offered up of a system of presumed innocence, with court proceedings that allow for both prosecutor and defendant to present evidence. Of course it’s not all rosy, because the code also spells out a hierarchical application of the laws. For instance, a doctor successfully treating the injuries of a high-ranking man will make more money than if he successfully treats a slave, but he will also face a much stiffer penalty for unsuccessful treatment of a wealthy man, and if it’s say, your run of the mill freed man, well, it officially just doesn’t matter.

And if a landowner steals livestock from another landowner, he is required to pay ten times the value of the stolen property to rightful owner. If, on the other hand, a starving middle school boy steals a pig from the rich girl who owns the desk next door, the punishment is unquestionably death.

As his mother, I might complain about this sad injustice, perhaps start a tablet writing campaign to the Babylonian elders, or petition the king for a pardon. But, I suppose the law is the law, and I’m completely thrilled that my kid has such a great social studies teacher. At least for the few days he has left.

And Once Again Conspiracy Theorists Get it Right

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.

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Something about the crosshairs in the upper right hand corner seems off. I’m sensing something fishy about this story. [public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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.

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If you look really closely at Jack Nicholson’s space helmet, you can totally see a shadowy reflection of an object that might be a boom mic.

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.

Apollo 11 Moon landing: conspiracy theories debunked

10 Reasons the Moon Landing Could Be a Hoax