BVI, Caribbeanand International News

The crazy plan to explode a nuclear bomb on the Moon

The crazy plan to explode a nuclear bomb on the Moon

In the 1950s, with the USSR seemingly sprinting ahead in the space race, US scientists hatched a bizarre plan – nuking the surface of the Moon to frighten the Soviets.

The moment astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped out on to the Moon's surface in 1969 is one of the most memorable moments in history.

But what if the Moon Armstrong stepped onto was scarred by huge craters and poisoned from the effects of nuclear bombardment?

At first reading, the title of the research paper – A Study of Lunar Research Flights, Vol 1 – sounds blandly bureaucratic and peaceful. The kind of paper easy to ignore. And that was probably the point.

Glance at the cover, however, and things look a little different.

Emblazoned in the centre is a shield depicting an atom, a nuclear bomb, and a mushroom cloud – the emblem of the Air Force Special Weapons Center at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, which played a key role in the development and testing of nuclear weapons.

Down at the bottom is the author's name: L Reiffel, or Leonard Reiffel, one of America's leading nuclear physicists. He worked with Enrico Fermi, the creator of the world's first nuclear reactor who is known as the "architect of the nuclear bomb".

Project A119, as it was known, was a top-secret proposal to detonate a hydrogen bomb on the Moon. Hydrogen bombs were vastly more destructive than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, and the latest in nuclear weapon design at the time. Asked to "fast track" the project by senior officers in the Air Force, Reiffel produced many reports between May 1958 and January 1959 on the feasibility of the plan.

The US was concerned that Soviet missile technology was advancing faster than they could keep up

Incredibly, one scientist enabling this horrific scheme was future visionary Carl Sagan. In fact, the existence of the project was only discovered in the 1990s because Sagan had mentioned it on an application to an elite university.

While it might have helped to answer some rudimentary scientific questions about the Moon, Project A119's primary purpose was as a show of force. The bomb would explode on the appropriately named Terminator Line – the border between the light and dark side of the Moon – to create a bright flash of light that anyone, but particularly anyone in the Kremlin, could see with the naked eye. The absence of an atmosphere meant there wouldn't be a mushroom cloud.

There is only one convincing explanation for proposing such a horrendous plan – and the motivation for it lies somewhere between insecurity and desperation.

It didn't help American nerves that Sputnik was launched on top of a Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile

In the 1950s, it didn't look like America was winning the Cold War. Political and popular opinion in the United States held that the Soviet Union was ahead in the growth of its nuclear arsenal, particularly in the development, and number, of nuclear bombers ("the bomber gap") and nuclear missiles ("the missile gap").

In 1952, the US had exploded the first hydrogen bomb. Three years later the Soviets shocked Washington by exploding their own. In 1957 they went one better, stealing a lead in the space race with the launch of Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite in orbit around the world.

It didn't help American nerves that Sputnik was launched on top of a Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile – albeit a modified one – nor that the US's own attempt to launch an "artificial moon" ended in a huge, fiery explosion. The inferno that consumed their Vanguard rocket was captured on film and shown around the world. A British newsreel at the time was brutal: "THE VANGUARD FAILS…a big setback indeed…in the realm of prestige and propaganda..."

The successful launch of Sputnik in 1957 caused consternation in the West

All the while, US schoolchildren were being shown the famous "Duck and Cover" information film, in which Bert the animated turtle helps teach children what to do in the event of a nuclear attack.

Later that same year, US newspapers citing a senior intelligence source reported that "Soviets to H-Bomb Moon On Revolution Anniversary Nov 7" (The Daily Times, New Philadelphia, Ohio) and then followed it up with reports that the Soviets might already be planning to launch a nuclear-armed rocket at our nearest neighbour.

Like with other Cold War rumours, its origins are hard to fathom.

Strangely, this scare also likely motivated the Soviets to develop their plans. Codenamed E4, their plan was a carbon copy of the Americans', and eventually dismissed by the Soviets for similar reasons – the fear that a failed launch could result in the bomb dropping down on Soviet soil. They described the potential for a "highly undesirable international incident".

They may have simply realised that landing on the Moon was the bigger prize.

But Project A119 would have worked.

In 2000 Reiffel had his say. He confirmed that it was "technically feasible", and that the explosion would have been visible on Earth.

The loss of the pristine lunar environment was less of a worry to the US Air Force despite the scientists' concerns.

"Project A119 was one of several ideas that were floated for an exciting response to Sputnik," says Alex Wellerstein, a historian of science and nuclear technology, "that included shooting down Sputnik, which feels very spiteful. They refer to them as stunts… designed to impress people.

"Now what they did in the end was put up their own satellite, and that took a little while, but they continued this project somewhat seriously, into at least the late 1950s.

"It is a pretty interesting window into the sort of American mindset at that time. This push to compete in a way that creates something very impressive. I think, in this case, impressive and horrifying are a bit too close to each other."

He isn't sure that fear of the anti-communist witch hunt made nuclear physicists work on this project. "Anyone who's in these roles is probably self-selected to some degree," he says. "They don't mind doing the work. If they were afraid, they could do a million other things. A lot of scientists did this in the Cold War; they said physics has gotten too political."

The US attempt to send a satellite into space in 1957 failed when the Vanguard rocket exploded on launch

There may have been more self-examination by the Vietnam War.

"Project A119 reminds me of the segment in The Simpsons when Lisa sees Nelson's 'Nuke the Whales' poster on his wall," says Bleddyn Bowen, an expert in international relations in outer space. "And he says, 'Well you've got to nuke something.'

If some of the more outlandish ideas don't find root in the US, that doesn't mean that they couldn't find favour further afield

"These were serious studies, but they didn't get any serious funding or attention when they left the space community. It was part of the late 50s, early 60s space mania before anybody knew exactly what nature the Space Age was going to take," he says.

"If there is going to be anything resembling this kind of lunar hysteria again it is going to run afoul of the established international legal order… agreed by almost every state in the world."

Could these plans surface again, despite the international consensus? "I've heard some noises coming out from some places and the Pentagon about looking at US Space Force missions for the lunar environment," Bowen says.

If some of the more outlandish ideas don't find root in the US, that doesn't mean that they couldn't find favour further afield – such as China. "I wouldn't be surprised if there's a community in China now wanting to push some of these ideas because they think the Moon is cool, and they work in the military," Bowen adds.

Most of the details of Project A119 are still shrouded in mystery. Many of the were apparently destroyed.

Its ultimate lesson, perhaps, is that we should never gloss over the research paper with the blandly bureaucratic name without, at least, reading it first.

AI Disclaimer: An advanced artificial intelligence (AI) system generated the content of this page on its own. This innovative technology conducts extensive research from a variety of reliable sources, performs rigorous fact-checking and verification, cleans up and balances biased or manipulated content, and presents a minimal factual summary that is just enough yet essential for you to function as an informed and educated citizen. Please keep in mind, however, that this system is an evolving technology, and as a result, the article may contain accidental inaccuracies or errors. We urge you to help us improve our site by reporting any inaccuracies you find using the "Contact Us" link at the bottom of this page. Your helpful feedback helps us improve our system and deliver more precise content. When you find an article of interest here, please look for the full and extensive coverage of this topic in traditional news sources, as they are written by professional journalists that we try to support, not replace. We appreciate your understanding and assistance.

Related Articles

Nvidia Joins Tech Giants as First Chipmaker to Reach $1 Trillion Valuation
Drone Attack on Moscow's Wealthiest Neighborhoods Suspected to be Launched by Ukraine
Elon Musk Meets Chinese Finance Minister in Beijing
AI ‘extinction’ should be same priority as nuclear war – experts
Prominent Hacker Forum RaidForums Suffers Substantial Data Breach
Nvidia CEO Huang says firms, individuals without AI expertise will be left behind
WPP Revolutionizes Advertising with NVIDIA's AI Powerhouse
Two US Employees Fired For Chasing Robbers Out Of Store As They Broke ''Company Policy''
If you donated to BLM, you got played
Pfizer, the EU, and disappearing ink - Smoke, Mirrors, and the Billion-Dose Pfizer Vaccine Deal: EU's 'Open Secret
Actor Tom Hanks told Harvard University graduates to be superheroes in their defense of truth and American ideals, and to resist those who twist the truth for their own gain
The Sussexes' Royal Rebound: Could Harry and Meghan Markle Return to the UK?
A provocative study suggests: Left-Wing Extremism and its Unsettling Connection to Psychopathy and Narcissism
France Arrests 10 on Suspicion of Failing to Respond in Time to Migrant Drowning
Neuralink Receives FDA Approval for First-in-Human Clinical Study
Is Saudi Arabia the holiest place in the world? Ancient Hebrew Inscriptions from "The Mount Sinai Stand" Discovered in Saudi Arabia
Ukrainian Intelligence Official Admits to Assassination Attempts on Putin
Bernard Arnault Loses $11.2 Billion in One Day as Investors Fear Slowdown in US Growth Will Reduce Demand for Luxury Products
Russian’s Wagner Group leader: “I am not a chef, I am a butcher. Russia is in danger of a revolution like in 1917.”
TikTok Sues Montana Over Law Banning the App
Ron DeSantis Jumps Into 2024 Presidential Race, Setting Up Showdown With Trump
Last Walmart in North Portland Closing Down
Florida's DeSantis seeks to disqualify judge in Disney case
Talks between US House Republicans and President Biden's Democratic administration on raising the federal government's $31.4tn debt ceiling have paused
Biden Administration Eyeing High-Profile Visits to China: The Biden Administration is heating things up by looking into setting up a series of top-level visits to Beijing by top officials in the coming months
New evidence in special counsel probe may undercut Trump’s claim documents he took were automatically declassified
A French court of appeals confirmed former President Nicolas Sarkozy's three-year jail term for corruption and influence peddling
Debt Ceiling Crises Have Unleashed Political Chaos
Weibao Wang, a former software engineer at Apple, was charged with stealing trade secrets related to autonomous systems, including self-driving cars
Mobile phone giant Vodafone to cut 11,000 jobs globally over three years as new boss says its performance not good enough
Elon Musk compares George Soros to Magneto, the supervillain from the Marvel Comics series.
Warren Buffett Sells TSMC Shares Over Concerns About Taiwan's Stability
New Study Finds That Secondary Bacterial Pneumonia Is a Major Cause of Death in COVID-19 Patients Who Require Ventilator Assistance
The Prime Minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines calls the British monarchy "an absurdity" he wants to remove in his lifetime
King Charles III being crowned.
'Godfather Of AI' Geoffrey Hinton Quits Google To Warn Of The Tech's Dangers
A Real woman
Vermont Man Charged with Stalking After Secretly Tracking Woman with Apple AirTag
Elon Musk Statements About Tesla Autopilot Could Be 'Deepfakes,' Lawyers Claim. Judge Evette Pennypacker Does Not Understand How Far and Advanced This Technology Became
Ukraine More Prepared for Counterattack as Reinforcements Arrive
UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni Discuss Migration, Defence, and Ukraine
AT&T's Successful Test of Satellite-Based Phone Call Raises Possibility of Widespread Coverage
CNN: "Joe Biden is asking for four more years — when 74% of Americans think the country is heading the wrong way“
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan Cuts Short Live TV Interview Due to Health Issue
US Congresswoman threaten Twitter Files journalist with arrest
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh slams New York Times' pro-government stance and treatment of sources
Enough is enough: it's time to end the war in Ukraine. While Russia may be to blame for starting it, Russia is not the one refusing to stop it
Fox News Settles their case with Dominion Voting Systems for a staggering $787.5 MILLION
AG decries scapegoating and rushed lawmaking by government
The land of the free violence