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After several blog posts describing spaceplanes (like the sleek experimental British Skylon plane), it is time to write about one of the alternative proposals for reusable space-capable craft which are capable of both take-off and landing. In the old spaceman fantasies from the golden age of science fiction, human explorers flew their rockets to another world, dropped through the atmosphere and landed vertically. Their rocket set around while the astronauts had fantastical adventures. Then they rushed back aboard and blasted off!
Last week (March 7th, 2013) an experimental rocket named Grasshopper flew a record 80 meters (263 feet) before landing perfectly on the launch pad where it started. Grasshopper was built by Space Exploration Technologies or SpaceX, the private space transport company founded by PayPal billionaire, Elon Musk (who–based on his name and his legacy–may be a James Bond villain or an alien philanthropist). SpaceX is the first privately funded company to successfully launch a spacecraft into orbit and recover it and the budding company has also been first past numerous other milestones in the commercialization of space. Instead of giving everything Roman names like NASA, SpaceX gives its crafts and components Arthurian names such as Merlin, Kestrel, and Draco (I’m going to pretend there was a grasshopper at least somewhere in T. H. White).
The reusable first stage tests of Grasshopper are breaking new ground in the fields of guidance and stability (which are required to land a Grasshopper). If all continues to go well the company plans on supersonic tests later this year. As these become more glorious and more dangerous it is unclear if they will seek to have their current Texas facility made into an official spaceport or if they will move out to the blazing glory of White Sands with the Airforce, NASA, and Virgin Galactic. Whatever the case I salute them for flying a smokestack around the countryside and then landing it on a basketball court. Perhaps I was too hasty to dismiss the possibilities of commercial spaceflight!
Ferrebeekeeper has looked at true space pioneers such as Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the father of theoretical astronautics, and Yuri Gagarin, the first person to actually visit space. However there are apocryphal tales concerning earlier space-explorers and aerospace pioneers. One of the shortest and silliest legends concerns Wan Hu, a (most-likely-fictional) petty government official in Medieval China who was reputedly the first astronaut. Wan Hu’s problematic story is set in 15th century China during the 19th year of the reign of the Chenghua Emperor (the 8th emperor of the Ming Dynasty who ruled from 1464 to 1487).
Wan Hu was obsessed with the heavens and he decided to travel to outer space by means of Ming dynasty technology (or possibly he was trying to catch a cartoon roadrunner). He assembled a “spacecraft/flying machine” from 47 powerful fireworks rockets, two large kites, and an armchair. The rockets were tiered into two stages to give the chair an added burst of power. When he gave the word, numerous attendants darted forward with torches and simultaneously lit the fireworks. Wan’s chair leapt into the sky and then exploded in a giant ball of flame. When the smoke cleared Wan and his flying machine were entirely gone. Even if he did not make it to space, he certainly succeeded in exiting this mortal plane!
Not only does the story contain implausible elements (!) but the first known version of Wan Hu’s heroic but doomed flight comes from an issue of Scientific American published in the October 2nd, 1909 issue of Scientific American (although the hero of that story was named “Wang Tu”). Subsequent retellings of the story (first in English and then in Chinese) changed the name to Wan Hoo and then finally to Wan Hu. Despite Wan’s nonexistent nature, the Soviets named a lunar crater after him in 1966. In 1970 the International Astronomical Union accepted the name—so an ancient crater which measures 5km deep and 52km wide on the dark side of the moon permanently bears the name of the imaginary adventurer. Surprisingly the Chinese have embraced Wan (choosing hopefully to admire his courage and foresight rather than his safety protocols) and there is a statue of him at Xichang Satellite Launch Centre.