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Project A119: The Secret Plan to Nuke The Moon

Long before the United States President John F. Kennedy delivered the inspiring "We choose to go to the Moon" speech in front of a large crowd that had gathered at Rice Stadium in Houston, Texas, the United States Air Force had already made its decision—they were going to the moon. The only difference was the choice of payload.

While President Kennedy envisioned Americans walking on the lunar surface, the bigwigs of the US Air Force fantasized a large mushroom cloud, one that would strike fear into the hearts of all nations and inspire admiration for the technological and military might of the US.

A Trip to the Moon

A sketch for Georges Méliès's 1902 film “A Trip to the Moon”

In 1957, the Soviet Union surprised the world by putting into orbit the first ever artificial satellite, the Sputnik, at a time when US rocketeers were still figuring out the intricacies of the launching system. On their first attempt, the rocket exploded on launch pad. The failure was widely derided in the press. It was called variously a kaputnik, flopnik, puffnik and stayputnik.

The success of the Soviets and the failure of Americans was demoralizing not only for those working on the space program, but for the entire nation as well. With Sputnik, the Soviets demonstrated that they had the technology to strike any place on earth with a nuclear-headed missile, and the way things were going for the Americans, much of the world assumed that the Soviets could launch a nuclear weapon at the United States and the United States would be unable to reply.

Nearly four months after Sputnik, and three months behind the second Soviet satellite, Sputnik 2, and the first living animal into space, a dog named Laika, the US managed to launch their first satellite, Explorer 1, on January 31, 1958. It weighted just 14 kilograms. In contrast, Sputnik weighted 83.6 kilograms, and the rocket that put it into orbit was the most powerful ever designed. Soviet rockets became progressively more powerful with each launch, and so did their payload. Sputnik 2 was over half a ton. By May 1958, the Soviet Union had their third satellite in space—Sputnik 3, a humongous floating scientific laboratory, twelve feet tall and 1.3 ton in weight.

Vanguard rocket explodes

Vanguard rocket explodes seconds after launch at Cape Canaveral (December 6, 1957)

The Soviets were clearly ahead in the space race, and the US desperately hunted for something that would boost their confidence. So they turned to what they knew and did best—building nuclear weapons and blowing them up. Even better. Why not send an atomic bomb to the moon and detonate it for all the world to see? An event such as this would be so spectacular that it would firmly put America back into the game. And that’s how Project A119 was born.

At once a team of physicists and scientists were assembled to study the visibility of the explosion from earth—that was objective number one—along with other fringe benefits, and whether such an explosion could be harmful to the lunar environment. It was decided that the device will have to be exploded in the region of twilight so that the resulting dust cloud from the explosion would be illuminated by the sun making it visible from earth. Renowned author, Carl Sagan, who was then a doctoral student working under astronomer Gerard Kuiper, was also on the team. He was asked to create a mathematical model of the expansion of the exploding dust cloud in the space around the moon.

Initially, a hydrogen bomb was considered but then decided against because it would be too heavy for the 240,000-miles-trip to the moon. Instead, a smaller device with a relatively low yield of 1.7 kiloton was chosen. By comparison, the Little Boy bomb dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima in 1945 had a yield of 13–18 kilotons.

Work on Project A119 continued until January 1959, when suddenly it was abandoned. Project A119 was made classified and all participants were vowed to secrecy.

The existence of Project A119 remained largely secret until the mid-1990s, when writer Keay Davidson discovered the story while researching the life of Carl Sagan for a biography. Sagan had apparently gave out details of the project—for which he was later accused of violation of national security—when applying for an academic scholarship at the University of California in 1959. More details about the project came out in 2000, shortly after Carl Sagan’s biography was published, when physicist Leonard Reiffel, who headed the study, broke his anonymity and spoke to the press.

“As these things go, this was small,” Dr. Reiffel told the NY Times. “It was less than a year and never got to the point of operational planning. We showed what some of the effects might be. But the real argument we made, and others made behind closed doors, was that there was no point in ruining the pristine environment of the moon. There were other ways to impress the public that we were not about to be overwhelmed by the Russians.”

“Thankfully, the thinking changed,” Dr. Reiffel added. “I am horrified that such a gesture to sway public opinion was ever considered.”

Dr. David Lowry, a British nuclear historian, called the project’s proposal obscene. “To think that the first contact human beings would have had with another world would have been to explode a nuclear bomb. Had they gone ahead, we would never have had the romantic image of Neil Armstrong taking "one giant step for mankind,” he said.

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