Wednesday, October 15, 2008

You'd be forgiven for thinking that this is an unused scene from Dr. Strangelove, but the United States and the Soviet Union have seriously considered exploding atomic bombs on the Moon. It was the late 1950s, and the Cold War was extremely chilly. Someone in the US government got the bright idea of nuking the Moon, and in 1958 the Air Force Special Weapons Center spearheaded the project (labeled A119, "A Study of Lunar Research Flights").

The idea was to shock and awe the Soviet Union, and everybody else, with a massive display of American nuclear might. What better demonstration than an atomic explosion on our closest celestial neighbor? According to the project's reports, the flash would've been visible to the naked eye on Earth. (It's been suggested that another motivation may have been to use the Moon as a test range, thus avoiding the problems with irradiating our home planet.)

Carl Sagan was among the scientists lending his intellectual muscle to this hare-brained scheme. The project's leader was physicist Leonard Reiffel, who said: "I made it clear at the time there would be a huge cost to science of destroying a pristine lunar environment, but the US Air Force were mainly concerned about how the nuclear explosion would play on earth."

When a reporter for Reuters asked him what had happened to Project A119, Reiffel replied, "After the final report in early- to mid-1959, it simply went away, as things sometimes do in the world of classified activities."

Astoundingly, this wasn't the only time that a nuclear strike on the Moon was contemplated. Science reporter Keay Davidson reveals that "in 1956, W.W. Kellogg of RAND Corporation considered the possibility of launching an atomic bomb to the Moon." In 1957, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory put forth Project Red Socks, the first serious proposal to send spacecraft to the Moon. One of its lesser suggestions was to nuke the Moon in order to send lunar rocks

hurtling back to Earth, where they could be collected and studied. The following year, the leading American astronomer of the time, Gerard Kuiper, coauthored a memo which considered the scientific advantages of nuking the Moon. The creator of the hydrogen bomb, physicist Edward Teller, similarly mused about dropping atomic bombs on the Moon in order to study the seismic waves they would create.

The Soviet Union got in on the act, also in the late 1950s. Project E-4 would've used a probe armed with an A-bomb to blast the Moon, apparently as a display of one-upmanship. The idea reached the stage of a full-scale model but was aborted for fear of the probe falling back to Earth.


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