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China's Ming Dynasty astronaut

Legendary 16th century official was space pioneer

By Joe Havely

Wan Hu's journey to the stars... at least, that was the plan.
Wan Hu's journey to the stars... at least, that was the plan.

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HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- Astronaut Yang Liwei's history-making flight to the stars will almost certainly transform him into an instant hero for millions of Chinese.

His flight aboard the Shenzhou V spacecraft has shown China capable of joining an elite club of space powers that until Wednesday included just Russia and the United state as its members.

Of course, as any space historian knows, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was the first man in space.

His 1961 flight aboard a Soviet Vostok space capsule catapulted the former air force pilot into the history books and set off alarm bells in the Western world that the final frontier was about to turn a very communist shade of red.

But was he really the first?

Several centuries earlier -- legend says about 1500 AD, around the middle of the Ming Dynasty -- 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, a local government official, was obsessed by the stars and planned a rather harebrained scheme to get himself closer to them.

Something of a nutty professor character, Wan 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.

Centuries before the Wright brothers took to the air or the Germans launched their V1 and V2 rockets, Wan was convinced that the weapons of war could also be a means of transportation and his ticket to the stars.

He was somewhat ahead of his time.

Big bang

Gagarin: First in space and hero of the Soviet Union... but did someone boldly go before him?
Gagarin: First in space and hero of the Soviet Union... but did someone boldly go before him?

Wan's pioneering spacecraft was built around a sturdy chair, two kites and 47 of the largest gunpowder-filled rockets he could lay his hands on.

Come the launch day, Wan dressed himself in his imperial finery, strapped himself in the chair and called upon his 47 servants, each armed with a flaming torch, to light the 47 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 and his chair were nowhere to be seen.

Whether Wan actually made it or not has never been made clear.

The prognosis does seem a little doubtful.

But despite the somewhat cranky nature of spacecraft he was certainly on the right track.

Four-and-a-half centuries later and those same principles behind the first Chinese rockets did indeed lift Gagarin on his historic flight beyond Earth's gravity.

Another four decades on and China finally followed suit, launching a man into space and turning Wan Hu's centuries-old dream into reality.

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