Satellites are another wonder of modern technology that we take for granted in the 21st century. They orbit far over our heads, transmitting our cellphone calls, our television shows, and the other important facets of modern life. Many of us would quite literally be lost without them, since GPS is powered by a system of satellites.
However, it wasn’t all that long ago that satellites were a new concept. During the Cold War, the United States and the USSR competed with one another for supremacy in space. The Soviets took an early lead in the Space Race when they launched Sputnik I, the first artificial satellite ever put into orbit. While the Soviets rejoiced over this monumental achievement, the United States—public and government alike—were terrified. The idea that Ivan could do something that the US was not capable of bruised the American ego. Some among the public were terrified of Sputnik, convinced that the satellite would be used to rain nuclear death over the American heartland (this despite the fact that the Sputnik was only about the size of a basketball.) On a more practical level, it meant that the Soviets had rocket engines powerful enough to reach orbit. Those missiles would be powerful enough to be launched from the Soviet Union to the United States. In an era of Cold War paranoia, that was enough to put a chill down the spine of even the most stalwart general.
The demoralized country needed something to bolster its confidence, and to show the world—and the Soviet Union—that the US wasn’t out of the race yet. It needed a big gesture, something that would make the world stand in awe of US power.
As far as grand gestures go, a country couldn’t go too far wrong with a mushroom cloud. With that in mind, Air Force planners dreamed up an idea that would make a Bond villain cackle maniacally. It was dubbed Project A119, and it involved nothing short of detonating a nuclear bomb on the moon for all the world to see.
A Show of Force
The year was 1958. The US had managed to launch its own satellite, a piddly ten and a half pound device. While it was a triumph of American engineering, it didn’t matter because the Soviets had already done it. The Air Force wanted something far bigger, and they commissioned a group of physicists to draw up the plan to put a mushroom cloud on the moon. Interestingly enough, Carl Sagan, who would become famous for his show Cosmos and his work to popularize science, was a part of the project.
The plan called for an atomic bomb with about the same yield of the weapon that destroyed Hiroshima thirteen years before. The 12 kiloton device would have been large enough to produce a blast visible from Earth, but it would have been small enough to feasibly be launched atop the rockets available at the time. It also would not be large enough to distort too many of the features of the moon.
A suitable rocket for the mission was not available when planning started, but the Air Force was slated to produce an ICBM capable of making the 238,000 mile journey to the moon in 1959. Designed to rain nuclear bombs on Soviet cities, the guidance system of the rocket would have been accurate to within two miles.
Finding a suitable target for the moon-bound nuke was relatively simple. The bomb had to go off where it was most visible, so the scientists working on the project figured that the edge of the moon’s disk would be a suitable spot. The dust cloud resulting from the explosion would be back-lit by sunlight, making it clearly visible from Earth. While on Earth the nuclear explosion would have formed the iconic mushroom cloud that haunted the dreams of the paranoid Cold War public, the moon was a different story. Lacking an atmosphere, and with a much smaller gravitational pull than Earth, the moon would make any explosion act oddly to an Earth-bound observer’s eyes. Rather than a neat mushroom cloud, the debris would be flung haphazardly here and there and everywhere. The incredible energies of a nuclear blast combined with the low gravity of the moon would scatter radioactive moon dust everywhere. The explosion and the widespread debris would have ruined the iconic man in the moon.
There was at least a veneer of scientific inquiry over the whole project. Scientists believed at the time that the Moon might harbor microbial life. Carl Sagan in particular championed this view. He suggested that organic particles might be detectable within the debris cloud. Also, the cloud might give scientists a glimpse into the composition of Earth’s only natural satellite.
The whole plan sounds absurd today, but for at least a year it was seriously considered, even if it never reached the implementation phase. There would be better, less explosive means to boost the public morale. It wasn’t even clear that the project would have its intended effect; after all, the public might not be keen on having the Air Force rearrange the Man in the Moon’s face. Scientists worried about destroying the pristine lunar environment with radiation and the destruction a nuclear detonation would cause.
Strangely enough, the Soviet Union considered a similar plan at the same time as their American counterparts. Their plan was not to produce a cloud visible from the Earth, but rather to produce a flash that astronomers around the world could observe. While they toyed around with the idea briefly, the Soviet establishment eventually rejected the notion. The problem went back to the Moon’s lack of atmosphere; a nuclear detonation would not produce a flash the same way as it did on earth. They feared that the explosion might not register on film.
What might have been
Had Project A119 been executed, it would have fundamentally altered the direction of the Space Race. Space exploration, while still in its infancy, would have taken on a distinctly militaristic bent. Certainly, technology developed for space exploration was used for military purposes, and vice versa, but space technology was not made for explicitly military purposes. Had the US detonated a nuke on the moon though, it would have sent clear signals that the militarization of space was an American priority, and the Soviets would have responded in kind. A race to build bigger and badder space based weapons systems might have ensued, and the Cold War might have looked a lot different and a lot more dangerous.
Luckily, both sides came to their senses. Nuking the moon is a pretty stupid idea when you take a few minutes to think about it, after all. There’s a reason it was only considered for a year before being scrapped. Project A119 is little more than a bizarre footnote in the history of the Cold War.
The Associated Press. “US Weighed A-Blast on Moon in 1950s.” articles.latimes.com. May 18, 200. Los Angeles Times. April 26, 2014. http://articles.latimes.com/2000/may/18/news/mn-31395
Barnett, Anthony. “US planned one big nuclear blast for mankind.” TheGuardian.com. May 13, 2000. The Guardian. April 26, 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/science/2000/may/14/spaceexploration.theobserver
Broad, William. “US Planned Nuclear Blast on the Moon, Physicist Says.” NYTimes.com. May 16, 2000. The New York Times. April 26, 2014 http://www.nytimes.com/2000/05/16/us/us-planned-nuclear-blast-on-the-moon-physicist-says.html
Tanner, Adam. “Russia Wanted Nuclear Bomb on Moon.” iOL.co.za. July 9,1999. iOL News. April 26, 2014 http://www.iol.co.za/news/world/russia-wanted-nuclear-bomb-on-moon-1.4078#.U9uQhWOGf4U