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The myth that the Great Wall of China is visible from the Moon originated before any astronaut was even sent into space

Goran Blazeski

More than just being one of the most challenging projects in the history of mankind and one of the Seven Wonders of the Medieval World, the Great Wall of China is arguably the greatest symbol of the Chinese nation and its culture.

With a history stretching back more than 2,000 years and a total length of 13,171 miles, this architectural wonder and masterpiece of defensive strategy stood the test of time and kept China’s northern borders safe from barbarian nomads. Additionally, it helped in the consolidation of the empire of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China.

The Great Wall of China at Jinshanling. Author: Severin.stalder  CC BY-SA 3.0

The Great Wall of China at Jinshanling. Author: Severin.stalder  CC BY-SA 3.0

The wall was renovated and reinforced during the Han Dynasty, and sections of it were repaired, rebuilt, or expanded by the Sui and the Northern dynasties. The construction continued under the Song Dynasty, the Jin Dynasty, and the Yuan Dynasty, but the Great Wall of China as we know it today was constructed mainly during the mighty Ming dynasty.

The Great Wall in 1907

The Great Wall in 1907

Today, China’s iconic Great Wall is one of the greatest tourist attractions in the world and an enduring monument to the power of this ancient country.

Countless beautiful legends and stories surrounded the construction of the Great Wall and captivated the hearts and minds of people from all over the world. The most popular of these stories is perhaps the one of Meng Jiangnu, whose husband had been pressed by officials into helping with the construction of the wall. He never returned, as the story goes. So Meng Jiangnu decided that she would do anything to find him. She was shocked to find out that her husband had died and his body had been built into the Great Wall. Meng Jiangnu cried in desperation for three days and three nights, and it is said that her howl caused the collapse of the wall and she finally found her husband’s body.

 

An area of the sections of the Great Wall at Jinshanling. Author: Jakub Hałun CC BY-SA 3.0

An area of the sections of the Great Wall at Jinshanling. Author: Jakub Hałun CC BY-SA 3.0

However, one of the most pervasive stories about the Great Wall of China, one that has become an urban myth, is that this magnificent creation is the only man-made structure on Earth which can be seen from the Moon–an average of 238,855 miles away.

The myth that the wall can be seen from the Moon is nothing new and, according to most sources, it appeared for the first time in the year 1754, when English antiquarian William Stukeley mentioned it in a letter.

William Stukeley

William Stukeley

An English writer named Henry Norman wrote in his 1904 book The People and Politics of the Far East that the wall “enjoys the reputation of being the only work of human hands on the globe visible from the Moon.” 

Henry Norman. Photo Credit

Henry Norman. Photo Credit

This myth became even more popular in the 1930s when a Ripley’s Believe It or Not! cartoon called it “the mightiest work of man, the only one that would be visible to the human eye from the moon.”

It took several more decades before this myth was finally debunked by Neil Armstrong, who returned from the Moon in 1969. The famed American astronaut stated on more than one occasion that the Great Wall was “definitely not visible from the Moon.”    

Alan Bean, Apollo 12 astronaut stated that “the only thing you can see from the Moon is a beautiful sphere, mostly white, some blue and patches of yellow, and every once in a while some green vegetation,” adding that no man-made object could be seen at that scale.

A satellite image of a section of the Great Wall in northern Shanxi, running diagonally from lower left to upper right and not to be confused with the more prominent river running from upper left to lower right.

A satellite image of a section of the Great Wall in northern Shanxi, running diagonally from lower left to upper right and not to be confused with the more prominent river running from upper left to lower right.

Astronauts Eugene Cernan and Ed Lu have said that they’ve seen the wall from low orbit, but noted that it can be seen only under nearly perfect conditions. “It’s less visible than a lot of other objects. And you have to know where to look,” said astronaut Ed Lu.

Pete Conrad, the commander of Apollo 12, stands next to Surveyor 3 lander. In the background is the Apollo 12 lander

Pete Conrad, the commander of Apollo 12, stands next to Surveyor 3 lander. In the background is the Apollo 12 lander

In 2003, astronaut Yang Liwei, who was the first person sent into space by the Chinese space program, stated that he had not been able to see the Great Wall of China.

Read another story from us: Six people celebrated the New Year in space

With only some 20 feet in width, the Great Wall of China definitely can’t be seen from the Moon. There is even a debate as to whether the wall can be seen from orbit, and according to NASA, the object is barely discernible from low Earth orbit and is visible only under nearly perfect conditions.