It’s almost impossible to imagine the fear and confusion that must have gripped Yang Liwei, miles above the Earth, more isolated than most humans will ever find themselves. But it wasn’t the vastness of space or the loneliness of his situation that concerned him. It was something much, much stranger.
Yang was in space for the first time – the only man in a small capsule orbiting the Earth. And then something truly bizarre happened – something that the confused astronaut hadn’t spoken about publicly since he came back from his 2003 space flight. But now he’s broken that silence.
In fact, it was a break in the silence that left Yang so worried. Because during his 21-hour mission outside of Earth’s atmosphere, he heard something that he shouldn’t have. Something that would spook you even if you weren’t in the depths of space. What he heard was a knocking on the side of his space capsule.
In October 2003 China became the third nation – after the U.S. and Russia – to send an astronaut into space without help from other nations. And Yang was the first person from China to make it into space without aid from other countries, too. The mission he flew, as part of the Chinese space program, was known as Shenzhou 5.
The mission blasted off from China at 9:00 a.m. local time on October 15, 2003. Moreover, during his time in space Yang completed 14 orbits of the planet, traveling nearly 400,000 miles in the process. But it wasn’t all plain sailing – even if you discount the bizarre sounds that haunted his flight around the Earth.
No, from the early stages things weren’t ideal. For instance, strong and uncomfortable vibrations were felt just 120 seconds into the launch of Shenzhou 5. In fact, these vibrations were so severe that the Chinese space program redesigned its rocket system for the launch of its next space mission, Shenzhou 6.
The mission didn’t end perfectly, either. While Yang was equipped with a tent, a knife and even a gun to use in case he landed away from his designated site, that wasn’t the problem. No, it was the touchdown itself that did him some damage. In fact, Chinese news reports showed the astronaut leaving the capsule with bloody lips after a particularly bumpy re-entry and landing.
Still, Yang’s time in space was the culmination of five years of training. Of 13 potential candidates to be the first Chinese person in space, it was Yang who was chosen. Consequently, he spent nearly a day orbiting the planet, eating specially designed packets of food and drinking herbal tea.
Despite the troubles at the start and the end of the mission, then, things seemed to go rather well, as far as the public was concerned. Indeed, Yang called his wife and told her not to worry about him. Chinese state TV, meanwhile, showed footage of him waving a small Chinese flag alongside the flag of the UN.
However, there were some strange things going on in Yang’s space capsule. As you can imagine, when the knocking first started, the astronaut was worried. After all, any unknown phenomenon when you’re that far away from safety is going to be unnerving.
Yang’s first response to the problem was to peer out of the porthole in the side of his capsule to see if there really was anything out there knocking. But he couldn’t see anything at all. It’d be around then that most people would start to think they were in the middle of a Twilight Zone episode. Yang, however, remained pretty calm.
In a recent interview with China Central Television, he said the strange noise had sounded like “someone knocking the body of the spaceship just as knocking an iron bucket with a wooden hammer.” It wasn’t just the sound that worried Yang, however; it was where it was coming from.
The astronaut just couldn’t pinpoint the source of the knocking. He added, “It neither came from outside nor inside the spaceship.” Interestingly, though, this has given some scientists a lead into just what the noise might have been.
Most of us learned in school that sound needs something to travel through. We also learned that, to all intents and purposes, space is a vacuum. After all, as the tagline on the famous movie poster goes, “In space, no one can hear you scream.” This meant that it was, of course, incredibly unlikely that the sound was coming from outside.
It’s possible that the knocking came from an object striking the capsule, though. In this case, the body of the spaceship would have acted as a medium to transfer the sound. But another explanation scientists presented was that the spaceship itself actually made the sound.
How so? Well, the temperature of an object orbiting the Earth can change dramatically over short periods of time as it moves in and out of sunlight. This in turn will make the object expand and contract. It’s a similar idea to that of the creaks and groans we sometimes hear in houses when they start to cool after the sun has gone down.
This expansion and contraction of the space capsule could have resulted in the knocking sound that Yang heard. And it would go some way to explaining how the sound seemed to come from neither inside nor outside the ship. But there’s an interesting coda to all of this. And, if anything, it makes the whole spooky space story even stranger.
In 2005 China launched Shenzhou 6, and in 2008 it launched Shenzhou 7. Now, while Yang hadn’t spoken to the public about the sounds he heard while in space, he had warned the next astronauts that they might hear something. And both of the missions reported hearing the same knocking sound that Yang had noticed.
But while other astronauts have reported hearing strange noises while they’ve been in space, none, surely, have been quite so eerie as Yang’s knocking. After all, it strikes at something primal in us. That concept that we’re never alone – and that even when we’re thousands of miles from home, we might just hear that terrifying knock.
Yang, however, has been a little more stoical about the whole episode. In his interview with China Central Television, he described the incident as merely “a non-causal situation [he has] met in space.” Astronauts really are a special breed. Most of us Earth-bound types would probably have used far more colorful language to describe what happened up there in a lonely spacecraft.