History’s First Astronaut
The legendary story of Wan Hu
Who was the first-ever astronaut? Russia’s Yuri Gagarin or Neil Armstrong?
The answer may be a man named Wan Hu of the Ming Dynasty in China. He was the first in history to attempt to fly to space, the Moon, to be more specific. Four-hundred years before Neil Armstrong stepped on the surface of the Moon and said the words “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”, Wan Hu built a rocket and attempted to fly to the Moon.
Wan Hu was a regional official sometime in the 16th century, during the Ming Dynasty era. Not much is known about him, except that he was a very adventurous man who was bored with his life as a government official. The adventurous nature of Wan Hu compelled him to explore the unknown and make a name for himself.
However, to his disappointment, the Ming-era Chinese worldview was very narrow by today’s standards and it was widely believed that all of Earth was already conquered and inhabited. Disappointed, Wan Hu spent days gazing into the stars at night and pushing off his governmental works, until an idea struck him. Wan Hu thought of a place that no king or emperor had ever conquered: the Moon. With a new goal of exploring the Moon, the dilemma was how to get there. There was no safe and successful way to make this trip in the 16th century.
Despite the technological shortcoming, Wan Hu came up with the best method of transportation he could think of: a chair with a bunch of explosives attached to the back to shoot him up to the Moon. As ridiculous as that may sound, the Ming dynasty during the 16th century was the world’s leader in gunpowder technology. Ming inherited most of the Yuan and Song dynasty’s gunpowder and explosives technology and had imported canons from Portugal through the trading post in Macau.
Inspired by the top-notch gunpowder technology of the time, Wan Hu gathered as many explosives as he could. This was easy, as he was a high ranked government official in his region. Seeing explosives send-off metal balls into the air, Wan Hu was certain that the same technology could send him into outer space. He came up with a design of a spaceship that he believed would work. A metal chair with two kites for directions and forty-seven explosives attached to the back of it. Considering there was absolutely no aviation technology at the time, his design was quite reasonable and innovative.
When the design and the building of the “spaceship” were complete, Wan Hu ordered his servant to light up the explosives. When the servant lit up the explosives, a large bang was heard, and Wan Hu became the first human to die in a space flight accident. The explosion was so big that it blew Wan Hu and his chair into oblivion and his servant believed that Wan Hu really disappeared to the Moon.
Although Wan Hu died tragically, his dream was fulfilled by the likes of Yuri Gagarin and Neil Armstrong almost 400 years later. In 1970, NASA recognized Wan Hu’s dreams and named one of the craters of the Moon after him, partially granting his wish to be on the Moon. His death may be tragic but his name is still remembered through legends as the first person to ever attempt to fly to the Moon.