America’s Top-Secret Cold War Plan to Nuke the Moon

America’s Top-Secret Cold War Plan to Nuke the Moon

Patrick Lynch - May 26, 2017

In 1958, the United States Air Force reportedly thought it was a good idea to detonate a nuclear bomb on the surface of the moon. The top secret project, known as ‘A Study of Lunar Research Flights’ but also called A119, was seemingly born out of a desire to intimidate the Soviet Union after it had launched Sputnik I.

Indeed, the plan was such a closely guarded secret that its very existence was denied until declassified projects were released to the public more than 40 years after the plan was mooted. The scientists involved in the project hoped that detonating a nuclear bomb on the moon would help answer some of the mysteries in the fields of planetary astronomy and astrogeology. If the device exploded on the surface instead of in a lunar crater, it would have been possible to see the ensuing flash of light with the naked eye.

America’s Top-Secret Cold War Plan to Nuke the Moon
Leonard Reiffel in 1963. New York Times

A Show of Strength

Details of A119 only came to light in 2000 when Leonard Reiffel, the physicist in charge of overseeing the possibility of detonating a nuke on the moon, spoke about the plan. The possibility was floated in 1958 after the USSR had launched its first manmade satellite, Sputnik I, into orbit in 1957. According to Reiffel, the military personnel he spoke with were seriously concerned about losing out to the Soviet Union in the Space Race.

When the Sputnik I launch was successful, it raised surprise and alarm in the United States. It came at a time when the U.S. had failed to launch its rival mission, Project Vanguard, on two occasions. At this stage, the Soviet Union took the lead in the Space Race and prompted the so-called ‘Sputnik crisis.’

The primary aim of the mission was nothing more than a PR exercise designed to show the USSR that America was the superior power. According to Reiffel, the Air Force wanted a mushroom cloud so gigantic that it could be seen from Earth. The plan was to explode the bomb on the dark side of the moon so that if it exploded on the moon’s edge, the sun would illuminate the mushroom cloud. The bomb would have been at least as large as the one used on Hiroshima at the end of the Second World War in 1945.

America’s Top-Secret Cold War Plan to Nuke the Moon
The basic outline of the weapon. Gloucestershire Transport History

Project A119

Reiffel did not explain how the explosion would have taken place but claimed it was technically possible at the time. Indeed, an intercontinental ballistic nuclear missile could have landed on the moon within two miles of its intended target. According to the physicist, top-ranking officials in the U.S. Air Force approached him with the plan in 1958. They asked him to fast-track a project to investigate the possibility of exploding a nuclear bomb on the moon as well as analyzing the possible effects.

The Armour Research Foundation (ARF) had been studying the impact of nuclear explosions on the environment in 1949 and continued its research until 1962. After the Soviet success in 1957, the ARF secretly started to look into the possible consequences of a nuclear explosion on the moon’s surface. There were rumors that the USSR was planning to detonate a hydrogen bomb on the moon to commemorate the anniversary of the October Revolution.

Perhaps this is why researchers considered using a hydrogen bomb during the initial planning phase. However, the U.S. Air Force abandoned the idea because a bomb of that nature would be too heavy to transport. Also, if the missile failed to hit the moon, it would return to Earth and cause widespread destruction. Ultimately, scientists decided to use a much lighter W25 Warhead with a 1.7 kiloton yield. By the time the United States had developed the plan, the USSR had a similar project. Project E-1 involved plans to reach the moon while E-2 and E-3 entailed sending a probe to the far side of the moon. E-4 was the last phase of the project and involved detonating a nuclear strike on the moon to show its strength to the United States. As was the case with the American plan, the Soviets canceled the project due to fears regarding the launch vehicle’s safety and reliability.

U.S. officials wanted the explosion to be visible from Earth, and according to an assistant professor of nuclear science and engineering at MIT, Areg Danagoulian, it would have been. He said the explosion would have caused a noticeable rising of dust from the moon and a flash that might be visible from Earth. Reiffel wasn’t 100 percent sure why Project A119 did not launch, but he is glad that it didn’t. The 1967 UN Outer Space Treaty banned the use of nuclear weapons in space, so the moment had passed. What were the ramifications of A119?

America’s Top-Secret Cold War Plan to Nuke the Moon
Carl Sagan.

Was It Even Possible? What Would Have Happened?

Despite Reiffel’s assertions that A119 was a distinct possibility, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Rhodes is unsure of the feasibility of the project. According to Rhodes, any plan to nuke the moon would not have made it past the study stage. In his opinion, the United States did not have any rockets with the power to get past the Earth’s orbit and hit the moon.

Astronomer Carl Sagan was responsible for many of A119’s calculations, and one of his biographers believes he breached national security protocols by revealing the classified project in 1959 when he applied for an academic fellowship. Many of the details of the project emerged in 1999 when Sagan’s biography was published, but the full nature of A119 is still not known.

The project was probably abandoned due to concerns over radioactive material that would contaminate space. There was also the small matter of the bomb exploding prematurely and endangering the inhabitants of Earth. The public outcry would probably have reached fever pitch if details of A119 were known at the time. Danagoulian is not so sure that the bomb would have led to dangerous radioactivity for future astronauts. He points out that the moon is already very radioactive so spending too much time there is dangerous in any case. He also doesn’t think that residual radiation would have caused problems for future manned missions to the moon.

The Space Race

It is crazy to think that mankind’s first experience with another object outside of Earth could have been to launch a nuclear bomb. Project A119 would have left a very different impression on the moon than the one Neil Armstrong did in 1969. Instead of launching a bomb, the United States launched Explorer 1 into orbit on January 31, 1958. The Air Force officially canceled Project A119 in January 1959.

In 1959, the Soviets made a breakthrough of sorts when Luna 2 became the first space probe to hit the moon. The USSR edged ahead in the Space Race when Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the Earth in April 1961. On May 5, Alan Shepherd was the first American in space although he did not orbit the Earth. In the same month, John F. Kennedy made the claim that the United States would not only be the first nation to put a man on the moon, but they would also do it before the end of the decade.

America started to take the lead and showed its intent when John Glenn emulated Gagarin in February 1962. By 1964, NASA’s budget has increased six-fold in three years, but it suffered a major setback in January 1967 when three astronauts died in a launch simulation. Meanwhile, the USSR suffered a crippling blow when Sergey Korolyov, the chief engineer of its space program, died in January 1966.

America’s Top-Secret Cold War Plan to Nuke the Moon
Depiction of a nuclear weapon being fired to the Moon. Priceonomics

The first manned space mission to orbit the moon, Apollo 8, launched in December 1968 and finally, on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon as part of the Apollo 11 mission. Who knows how the above would have unfolded had Project A119 been a success?

Read Next: 20 Successes and Failures of the American Space Program in the 1960s.