Ancient Chinese Rockets

Ancient Chinese Rockets

We all know that the first man in space was Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, who rocketed into orbit on April 12, 1961. But, did you know that was a much earlier launch attempt by a Chinese astronaut?

Around 1500, a Ming Dynasty official named Wan Hu decided to use his nation's advanced rocket technology to become the first man in space. He attached 47 small rockets to a chair. Dressed in his finest clothing, Wan sat down holding the strings of two kites that would help guide his flying vehicle. Servants lit the fuses, and then….

Boom! A massive explosion! And when the smoke cleared, Wan was gone, never to be seen again. Or he had been burned beyond recognition. It depends upon which version of the story you believe.

Ancient Chinese Rockets

Whatever the truth, the tale could only have originated in China. The Chinese were far ahead of everyone at that time in developing rockets, which they used as weapons in combat and as fireworks in celebrations.

Ancient Chinese rockets date back to at least the third century. In 228, the Wei State used torches attached to arrows to defend Chencang against the invading forces of the Shu State.

By the late 10th century, the Song Dynasty (960-1279) had mastered the art of using gunpowder in its rockets. Paper tubes filled with gunpowder and fitted with blasting fuses were attached to arrows. Later on, the gunpowder was carried directly inside the arrow. These high-speed weapons wreaked terror on the enemy.

The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) saw major developments in rocketry. In the 1550s and 1560s, famed General Qi Jiguang invented three types of new rockets while fighting against Japanese pirates. One type had a body made of hard wood topped with an armor-piercing sword, spear or knife. Qi equipped his 10 warships with more than 2,000 rockets; infantry and cavalry units received 4,760 rockets. The missiles were placed on wood racks, with soldiers holding the rear and lighting the fuses.

Another innovation in ancient Chinese rockets was the multi-shot rocket, which involved putting up to 100 individual missiles into a bucket and lighting them all from a single fuse. When launched, the rockets would spray the enemy with fire over a very wide area.

After defeating the pirates in 1565, Qi was moved to the northern frontier, where he repaired the Great Wall and defended against the Mongols. It was there that he deployed an even more terrifying weapon. Several multi-shot rockets would be placed on a cart, allowing for hundreds and even thousands of fire arrows to be shot simultaneously at the enemy. Qi stationed at least 40 of these carts along the Great Wall.

During the late Ming Dynasty, Chinese weapons designers created rockets that contained gunpowder with a fuse. Like modern rockets, they would explode when they reached their targets, causing much destruction and panic.

The Chinese could not hold their lead in rockets. Other nations began to catch up as the technology spread at the turn of the 14th century. Meanwhile, China neglected its science and technology development and fell behind the world. It was not until the end of the 20th century that the nation would begin to develop rockets that could rival those in the West.

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