Nuke the Moon?
It’s one thing to shoot for the stars, but nuking the moon? It might sound like a crazy idea today, but apparently during the Cold War 1950s, nothing was off the table.
In America, we like to think of ourselves as the triumphant winners of the Space Race. It’s Old Glory that’s planted firmly on the moon after all, not the Hammer and Sickle. However, rewind back to the 1950s and early 1960s. You’ll recall that it was actually the Soviets who took the early lead in exploring Space.
The Soviet Union launched Sputnik in October, 1957. Sputnik was the first artificial satellite to orbit around the Earth. This successful launch stood in contrast to failed American projects, specifically Project Vanguard, which brought botched attempts at launching an American satellite. Called the ‘Sputnik crisis’, these events led to public fears about the perceived technological gap between the US and the Soviets.
After the success of Sputnik, America was desperate to counter with their own grand technological achievement. In 1958, the United States Air Force proposed the idea of detonating a nuclear bomb on the moon. Some thought that a lunar explosion visible from Earth (more notably Moscow) would boost American morale and terrify the Soviets.
This wasn’t just some crackpot idea either. The now declassified Project A119, innocently known as ‘A Study of Lunar Research Flights’, shows just how serious this objective was. A team led by Leonard Reiffel at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago was assembled to study the potential implications of nuking the moon. The team was tasked with determining just how visible the explosion would be and what benefits, if any, to science such an explosion would have. If you need further proof that this study was legit, a young student named Carl Sagan was one of the contributors.
While this mission was sold as a scientific project, the report makes it clear that there was more than just science at stake. According to the report, ‘The motivation for such a detonation is clearly threefold: scientific, military, and political’. Today, scientists that worked on the project stress that science played only a small role in the plan. It was really more of a way for the US to show off and accomplish something before the Soviets.
Cancellation of the Project
Project A119 was eventually canceled by the Air Force in January, 1959. In the end, launching a nuclear weapon was just too risky to the public (remember that rockets exploding at launch was nothing unusual at that time). Project planners began to worry about possible negative reaction from the public. Furthermore, scientists like Leonard Reiffel feared what the nuclear fallout might mean for future lunar missions.
In 1963, the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was signed by the Soviet Union, United Kingdom, and United States. This put limitations on test detonations of nuclear weapons. In 1967, the Outer Space Treaty was signed establishing general international space law. Together, these treaties halted any further plans to detonate nukes on the moon. Also by this time, the US and the Soviet Union had already performed many high-altitude nuclear test explosions.
The United States finally achieved the victory they were looking for in the Space Race after landing on the moon with the Apollo 11 mission in 1969. That year, an Apollo scientist named Gary Latham suggested detonating a small nuke on the Moon for geologic research. The idea was ultimately written off as others felt it would interfere with studies of the Moon’s natural background radiation.
But What If?
So the project was cancelled and all that, but if it hadn’t been? What would happen if a nuclear bomb was detonated on the moon? Would it blow off a chunk? Blast the moon out of orbit? Uncover a secret underground race of moon people?
According to Leonard Reiffel, a single explosion on the lunar surface would have been ‘microscopic’, with little impact on the moon (if you’re wondering, it would take a precise strike on the moon with a force 1.5 million times greater than the collective nuclear arsenal to move the moon out of orbit).
So maybe nuking the moon wouldn’t have been that big of deal after all. Either way, we find it a bit odd that people back in the ‘50s could look up at the moon and think, Yeah, we should nuke that. File this story under ‘Strange Ideas of the Cold War’.