One of my favorite stories about the moon comes from China and tells of the world's first "astronaut," a brave soul named Wan Hu. No, this isn't the opening of an Abbott and Costello routine, but the story is nearly as amusing.
Wan Hu was a minor official in the Ming dynasty and, as legend goes, wanted badly to journey to the moon. Of course, this was impossible in those days, but Wan Hu believed that China's rocket and fireworks technology was the key to achieving his dream.
So one night, while the moon shone over 16th-century China, Wan Hu strapped himself into a special chair with 47 gunpowder-laden bamboo rockets latched to it. His 47 assistants lit the fuses and -- I'm sure -- ran frantically for their lives.
Within seconds, a roar ripped through the air and a flash lit the landscape. When the smoke cleared, the assistants peeked out. Wan Hu was gone! And he was never seen nor heard from again.
Could such an event have actually taken place? Surely someone, somewhere throughout history has tried such a stunt, but what about Wan Hu? Did he really make it to the moon that night, or was he completely obliterated in the "launch"? Discovery Channel's "MythBusters" decided to find out by trying the experiment with a crash-test dummy named Buster.
They found that their 47 rockets exploded upon ignition and shot the chair violently to one side, nearly destroying the chair and severely burning, but not obliterating, Buster. And, while the chair did "lift off a bit, it surely didn't go very far -- certainly not as far as the moon!
But that's not the story the Chinese tell. Legend says that Wan Hu did make it to the moon that night and that we can still see him there, sitting in the same chair and reading a book.
This week, when you see the brilliant moon in the sky after dark, look at it carefully. Its dark features are known to modern scientists as "mare" or "seas" -- vast plains of solidified magma. But some also trace the outline of the intrepid Chinese explorer.
It was in the region outlining Wan Hu's abdomen that the first astronauts actually set down onto the lunar surface 42 years ago -- in the region known as the Sea of Tranquility.
As the moon drifts through our sky from night to night and month to month, the line between light and dark -- the "terminator" -- migrates across the lunar surface as the angle of sunlight on it changes. But Wan Hu will remain a constant reminder that people even centuries ago dreamed of traveling to the moon, the planets and the stars. And there's one thing you can be sure of: Once you find Wan Hu on the moon, our cosmic neighbor will never appear quite the same again.