According to legend, centuries ago a Chinese official named Wan Hu attempted to visit the Moon. His spacecraft was a large wicker chair to which were fastened 47 large rockets (bamboo tubes packed with gunpowder). His underlings rushed forward to light the fuses then retreated. A moment later there was a mighty bang and flash accompanied by thick clouds of smoke. When the smoke had cleared, Wan Hu was gone without a trace. This story is repeated time and time again but is it true?
At some undetermined date in history, did an ambitious but foolish dreamer dare to make a journey to touch the unattainable, only to lose his life in the attempt? It does not seem impossible as China was home to some of the most skilled and imaginative technologists in history, and had been using rockets for fun (as fireworks) and as weapons from the 1200s (or even earlier). Alas, there probably is no truth in the story. This story of hubris appears increasingly often in histories of space flight (but it is absent from the 1960s and ’70s spaceflight books in my collection) but was unknown in China until recently. Almost certainly it is a western invention.
According to Ron Miller, author of the respected history of spaceship concepts The Dream Machines, the first known appearance of the tale in print was in the 2 October 1909 issue of Scientific American where the hero was named “Wang Tu”. In 1944, the pioneering spaceflight populariser Willy Ley (1906-69) retold the story in his book Rockets: The Future of Travel beyond the Stratosphere, naming the unfortunate mandarin as Wan Hoo. Within a few years as interest in space travel exploded the story spread rapidly (“went viral” as we would say today).
Despite Wan Hu’s apocryphal nature, he actually finally made it to the Moon in the 1960s thanks to the Russians. Naming a crater after Wan Hu “the legendary Chinese inventor” was proposed shortly after the Soviet probe Zond 3 flew past the Moon in July 1965 returning images of the Moon’s western farside. The name was also included as Van-Gu (Wan-Hoo) in the Soviet Atlas of the Moon’s Farside (1966) and was made official by the International Astronomical Union in 1970. Wan-Hoo is about 5km deep and 52km wide (so it would fit neatly between Armagh and Belfast). It can be found at Lat: 9.8°S, Long: 138.8°W, southwest of the much larger crater Hertzsprung. Wan-Hoo has been partially filled by ejecta from the impact which created its neighbour giving it a soft and blurred look. Obviously Wan-Hoo cannot be seen from Earth.
The story of Wan Hu has spread to his native land, currently enthusiastic about all thing space-related and appears in the Chinese media. There is even a statue of him at the Xichang Satellite Launch Centre. Appropriately enough, on 24 October 2007, China’s first (?) lunar mission, Chang’e 1, was successfully launched from the Xichang facility, followed by Chang’e 2 on 1 October 2010. The next small step for the Chinese lunar project will be the planned 2013 liftoff of the Chang’e 3 lunar rover for China’s first ever landing on another celestial body. Somewhere, perhaps Wan Hu is smiling.