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How America nearly nuked the moon

It’s 1958. The American public are gripped in a state of fear and anxiety after the recent Soviet launch of Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial satellite. Ever since the end of WW2, the U.S. and Soviets have been locked in an ever-escalating nuclear arms race that has now evolved into a Space Race. At this point in time, the Soviets have been winning the race and it seems that the U.S. is technologically falling behind their Cold War rivals. America desperately needs to turn the tide. 

To do that they need a show of strength to not only boost morale at home and raise national confidence but also remind the world why they are the dominant superpower. But what does that ‘win’ look like? 

In our timeline, it took the form of the Apollo 11 moon landings, when America successfully placed the first humans on the moon on 20 July, 1969. However, man might never have taken that ‘small step' if the U.S. had instead decided to action another of its plans – Project A119. 

The Air Force wanted a mushroom cloud so large it would be visible on earth.

The U.S. Air Force put the top-secret project into motion around May 1958. It had the unthreatening and innocuous title of A Study of Lunar Research Flights and was led by Leonard Reiffel, a leading physicist who would go on to hold the position of deputy director of the Apollo Program at NASA. 

Reiffel was asked by the Air Force to ‘fast-track’ a project to investigate the visibility and effects of a theoretical nuclear explosion on the surface of the moon. From the outset, Reiffel knew the project was politically motivated. Speaking to The Observer in 2000 he stated, ‘It was clear the main aim of the proposed detonation was a PR exercise and a show of one-upmanship. The Air Force wanted a mushroom cloud so large it would be visible on earth.’

The idea was that such a display of force demonstrating America’s advanced weaponry could have intimidated the Soviet Union, reassured the American public of their country's nuclear capabilities and put the U.S. back in pole position all in one swoop. So just how far did the project get?

Reiffel headed up a ten-person team that included Gerard Kuiper, the man now considered by many as the ‘father of modern planetary science’, and a young Carl Sagan, an astronomer who would go on to claim celebrity status with his television work. 

Sagan would also be the reason why this article you are reading even exists. Whilst applying for the Miller Institute graduate fellowship to Berkeley in 1959, Sagan disclosed information about the top-secret project. Although the world would not be made aware of its existence at the time, the fact Sagan had written about Project A119 meant that a breadcrumb trail had been left; one that was picked up by writer Keay Davidson whilst he was working on Sagan’s biography in the late 90s. When his book hit the shelves, Reiffel decided to go on the record to clarify some of the claims or in his own words to, ‘extend the historical record beyond the Davidson biography by offering some additional, first-hand comments.’

Reiffel was based at the military-backed Armour Research Foundation (ARF) in Chicago, now called the Illinois Institute of Technology Research. From May 1958 to January 1959, he and his team reported on the likely effects that the nuclear blast would cause, including dust and gas behaviour and the visual differences if the detonation occurred on the dark or light side of the moon. 

Although the exact delivery system of the nuclear device has never been divulged, Reiffel claimed that it was ‘technically feasible’ at the time to hit a target some 238,000 miles away on the moon with an accuracy of within two miles. It’s likely that feat would have involved an intercontinental ballistic missile, which the U.S. just so happened to have launched in 1959. The nuclear device would have been an atom bomb, not a hydrogen one, as the latter would have been too heavy for the missile to carry. 

Reiffel stated in his 1959 report that had such a feat been accomplished there would have been scientific and military benefits as well as the obvious political ones. He writes, ‘It is quite clear that certain military objectives would be served since information would be supplied concerning the environment of space, concerning detection of nuclear device testing in space and concerning the capability of nuclear weapons for space warfare.’

As for the scientific findings, the plan would be to place three identical instruments onto the moon’s surface prior to the detonation. These instruments would then take a variety of measurements before, during and after the nuclear explosion. Their findings would help scientists learn more about the composition of the moon and its environment as well as about our own planet. There was even a suggestion that a nuclear explosion might expose any microbial life on the moon.  

When the project first came to light in the late 90s, early news reports claimed that the nuclear device would have blown up the moon. In a 2012 interview with CNN, Reiffel clarified that this was a gross misunderstanding of the facts. ‘Absolutely not, it would have been microscopic so to speak,’ he said. ‘It would have left a crater that would have been, I think, essentially invisible from Earth, even with a good telescope.’

Although the blast would have been small in relative terms, fears of radioactive material contaminating the pristine lunar environment became a key reason as to why the project never got off the ground. Environmental disturbances, as well as biological and radiological contamination, meant the operation would have come at a huge cost to science.  Reiffel’s report vehemently stressed this point stating, ‘if such biological contamination of the moon occurred, it would represent an unparalleled scientific disaster, eliminating several possibly very fruitful approached to such problems as the early history of the solar system, the chemical composition of matter in the remote past, the origin of life on earth, and the possibility of extraterrestrial life.’

The other major fear was of the uncontrollable. Any space venture comes with its fair share of uncertainties and risk and the chance of a nuclear device exploding prematurely within the Earth’s atmosphere was not one to be taken lightly. The fallout, so to speak, would have been devastating in many regards.

One giant nuclear blast for mankind was thankfully not meant to be.

Even if it had all gone off without a hitch, Reiffel explained to his superiors that it was unlikely the public would embrace the success of the mission quite as much as they would. Writing in his report he stated, ‘It is also certain that, unless the climate of world opinion were well-prepared in advance, a considerable negative reaction could be stimulated.’

In the end, Project A119 was shelved leaving Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to etch their names in the annals of history. Their accomplishment provided us with remarkable, inspiring and positive images of mankind’s greatest ever feat of exploration. One giant nuclear blast for mankind was thankfully not meant to be.

As left field as the nuclear idea might have been, the U.S. weren’t the only ones to consider it. Around the same time in 1958, the Soviets were cooking up the same scheme. Speaking in 1999, Boris Chertok, the famed Russian rocket engineer spoke of the Soviet plans to nuke the moon under the codename of Project E-4. 

The Project was due to be executed in the summer of 1959 but was never given the green light due to similar reasons that prevented Project A119 from getting off the ground – safety. The Soviets also didn’t believe that the flash from their explosion would last long enough to catch on film, rendering the whole thing somewhat pointless from a propaganda point of view.

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty between the U.S. and Soviets, among others, stopped any such plans cropping up again in the future. The treaty banned the placement of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction in space and limited the use of the moon to peaceful endeavours only. 

To this day, many Cold War documents remain under lock and key in the U.S., including the full details of Project A119. Many reports written at the time have since been destroyed. The Pentagon, U.S. Air Force and U.S. government have all continually refused to comment on the plan; neither confirming nor denying it ever existed.