Remember That Time the US Thought About Nuking the Moon?

In 1958, at the height of the Cold War, the Air Force thought that exploding a nuclear device on the moon would inspire America and show the Russians who was boss.

Harry Cheadle

Harry Cheadle

Image by Sarah MacReading

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To this day, it's unclear who first had the idea to nuke the moon. As with a lot of ideas hatched at the height of the Cold War, it seems like a fever dream from the 50s, an era when humanity was simultaneously on the brink of destruction and the discovery of the next frontier of human existence: outer space. No one now thinks nuking the moon is a good idea, and US officials kiboshed the notion relatively quickly. But you can easily imagine some Pentagon suits looking up at the moon, looking at America's newly acquired nuclear arsenal, looking back up at the moon, and thinking, What if we... ?

The details of the program, dubbed Project A119, were first made public in 2000 by Leonard Reiffel, the physicist in charge of looking into the possibility of detonating a nuke on the moon's surface or just above it. Reiffel told the UK paper the Observer that Air Force officials had told him to look into the idea in 1958. The previous year, the USSR had launched Sputnik, the first manmade satellite, into orbit, and Reiffel said that the military brass he spoke to were worried about the Russians beating the Americans in the space race.

"It was clear the main aim of the proposed detonation was a PR exercise and a show of one-upmanship," Reiffel said. "The Air Force wanted a mushroom cloud so large it would be visible on Earth."

Though nuking the moon is inconceivable now, back then the men who ran America were excited by the possibilities nuclear technologies offered and eager to play with it.

"Just the same way we are playing with wacky ideas about hypersonic missiles and RAM jets [now], back then, atomic energy was a new thing," Omar Lamrani, a military analysis at the think tank Stratfor, told VICE. "It was still something that was being discovered."

Military planners of the era were brimming with wild schemes—around the same time Project A119 was being studied, the Army came up with Project Horizon, which would have put a military base on the moon at a cost of $6 billion. And the Soviets were reportedly considering nuking the moon as well, prompting fears in at least one US newspaper that the "warhead could boomerang to Earth." At the same time, scientists were toying with ideas that included everything from nuclear-powered submarines (which became a reality) to nuclear-powered spaceships (which did not). Whatever the US or USSR thought of, there was always the worry that the other side had thought of it first and better. "If you're going to have to think outside the box to get an advantage, that's what you're going to have to do," Lamrani said.

In June 1959, Reiffel and his team produced a now unclassified report titled, benignly, "A Study of Lunar Research Flights." The largely technical document doesn't betray the batshit premise and is free of Cold War hysteria. Instead it goes into minute detail of every aspect of nuking the moon—including the remote possibility that such a detonation would wipe out any traces of life up there.

Reiffel told the Observer the scheme was "certainly technically feasible" and hitting the moon with an ICBM wouldn't have been much of a challenge. Arguably, it would have been more difficult to land instruments on the moon prior to the detonation, which the 1959 paper recommended. But what would have happened if they had gone ahead with the idea?

Though nuking the moon in 1959 would have likely given scientists a trove of interesting experimental data, like much of the space race it would have mainly been about showcasing US superiority over the USSR. "Obviously... specific positive effects would accrue to the nation first performing such a feat as a demonstration of advanced technological capability," Reiffel's paper noted. "It is also certain that, unless the climate of world opinion were well-prepared in advance, a considerable negative reaction could be stimulated." In other words, you'd have to announce what you were gonna do before you nuked the moon, or everyone was going to freak out.

Given the PR aspects of the mission, US officials likely would have wanted to make sure the nuclear reaction was visible from Earth, and it likely would have been, according to Areg Danagoulian, an assistant professor of nuclear science and engineering at MIT. Though a lot of the effects of a nuclear detonation on the moon depend on a host of factors—including how big the bomb is and how far above the surface it goes off—Danagoulian was willing to speak in general terms about what might happen if Project A119 had become reality.

Since the moon lacks an atmosphere, a nuke there wouldn't cause a blast like it would on Earth. (If a nuke falls on the moon and no one is around to hear it, it doesn't make a sound.) The nuclear reaction would produce a flash of light that might be visible on Earth, but mostly what Earthlings would notice would be the rising of dust from the moon. Radiation from the nuke would heat up the lunar surface, Danagoulian told VICE, resulting in dust being cast off in a massive cloud. As this dust rose above the surface, at least some of it would be illuminated by the sun, an effect that you could see from Earth, especially if the dust was rising off the dark part of the moon. Some of this dust would be traveling fast enough to escape the moon's gravitational pull and would wind up in open space.

If all that had happened, would astronauts have to worry about nuclear fallout when they landed on the moon? The answer depends on a myriad of factors, said Danagoulian—such as the type of the bomb and the way its detonated, the time between that and the arrival of the astronauts, as well as the selected landing spot. However, the moon itself is already very radioactive; since it doesn't have an atmosphere or a magnetic field, its surface is bombarded by far more cosmic radiation from space than the Earth is, resulting in radiation levels much higher than the ones we deal with on Earth. As a result, hanging out for long periods on the moon is already pretty dangerous, and the residual radiation from Project A119's nuke might not be a top concern for future manned moon missions after all.

Reiffel told the Observer that he wasn't sure why Project A119 never came about, but he was "horrified that such a gesture to sway public opinion was ever considered." More than likely, the Pentagon realized that sending a man to the moon was inspiring, but sending a bomb to the moon would have been deranged. In any case, in 1967 the UN Outer Space Treaty banned the use of nuclear weapons in space, making any study of nuking the moon a moot point. We're never going to see moon dust fly into space within our lifetimes unless something goes very, very wrong.

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