In 1957 the Soviet Union launched Sputnik into low earth orbit. It was the planet’s first artificial satellite—and much to the apprehension of the Pentagon and U.S. policymakers, it belonged to the commies. The Space Race had begun and America was losing.
The decades that followed were a parade of Cold War paranoia, technological innovation and bizarre military strategies. Both the East and West wanted to make sure the world knew who was the top superpower. But how?
Being the first to the moon was the top prize. In the early days of the Space Race, both countries thought the best way to prove they’d been to the moon was to nuke it.
Today it seems ridiculous that anyone would try to nuke the moon, but the political and cultural tensions of the 1950s made desperate plans seems sensible. In 1958, the Armour Research Foundation—the precursor to the Illinois Institute of Technology—developed a plan with guidance from the Air Force.
Designated Project A119 or “A Study of Lunar Research Flights,” the ARF’s inquiry looked into the possible effects of a nuclear detonation on the lunar surface between 1949 and 1962. Partly, the studies were a response to growing concern over atmospheric effects of nuclear testing—but not merely.
“I was told the Air Force was very interested in the possibility of a surprise demonstration explosion, with all its obvious implications for public relations and the Cold War,” Leonard Reiffel, the director of the project, wrote in Nature.
“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,” Reiffell told the The Observer. “The U.S. was lagging behind in the Space Race.”
The explosion would also tell scientists and the military a lot about the effectiveness of nuclear weapons in space. In a declassified report about the project written by Reiffel in 1959, he claimed 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.”
Lunar mutual annihilation
A lot of those Cold War plans are still classified—including A119—and the reason we know about it is because of Carl Sagan.
In 1959, Sagan was a young grad student with his sights set on the University of California, Berkeley. As part of his application for a scholarship to UC’s Miller Institute, Sagan divulged some of the work he had done for the ARF, including reports he’d written titled Possible Contribution of Lunar Nuclear Weapons Detonations to the Solution of Some Problems in Planetary Astronomy and Radiological Contamination of the Moon by Nuclear Weapons Detonations.
The revelation that the popular cosmologist and science writer was willing to brag about his work on classified projects to help him get a scholarship caused a minor stir when it was discovered by biographers after his death in 1996. The Pentagon has yet to comment on the old Cold War moon nuking plans and many of the reports written at the time have since been destroyed.
The project, thankfully, never got off the ground, and America decided that putting a man on the moon was better than blowing it up.
In the 2003 documentary The Fog of War, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara talked about sitting down with his chiefs to discuss the Limited Test Ban Treaty, which prohibited above-ground nuclear testing.
They said, “The Soviets will cheat.” I said, “How will they cheat?” You won’t believe this, but they said, “They’ll test them behind the moon.” I said, “You’re out of your minds.” I said, “That’s absurd.”
But it wasn’t totally absurd. America wasn’t the only country that once thought exploding the surface of the moon was a realistic idea. High on the success of Sputnik, two Russian scientists — Sergei Pavlovich Korolev and Mstislav Vsyevolodovich Keldysh — proposed a series of projects in 1958 that would take the Kremlin all the way to the moon and let the world know they’d been there.
It was designated the “E Project,” and it involved a number of steps. E-1 called for getting a spacecraft to the moon. E-2 and E-3 involved orbiting around the moon and taking pictures of its surface. E-4 was when things got weird. It involved detonating a small nuclear charge on the lunar surface.
Famed Russian rocket engineer Boris Chertok spoke with Reuters in 1999 about the E-4 project:
In 1958 there was a plan to send an atomic bomb to the moon, so that astronomers across the world could photograph its explosion on film. That way no one would have doubted that the Soviet Union was capable of landing on the surface of the moon. But the idea was rejected as physicists decided the flash would be so short lived because of the lack of an atmosphere on the moon that it might not register on film.
The Soviets, of course, sent cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into space in 1961. The American Apollo program followed, securing major PR and technological victories. And despite the nuclear sabre rattling, no lunar landscapes were harmed.