It seems insane these days to think so but…it almost happened. In a race for nuclear supremacy during the cold war, The United States once considered this action as a deterrent to the Soviet Union according to a physicist involved in the plan.
Although the 1950s era U.S. Air Force top-secret Project A119, entitled “A Study of Lunar Research Flights,” was never carried out, the fact that we once even considered such a thing is frightening. The plan called for detonating an atomic bomb on the surface of the moon as a demonstration of the nation’s Cold War might, according to a physicist involved in the plan.
In an exclusive interview with The Observer in 2000, Dr Leonard Reiffel, then 73, the physicist who fronted the project at the US military-backed Armour Research Foundation, now part of the Illinois Institute of Technology, revealed America’s extraordinary lunar plan.
“It was clear the main aim of the proposed detonation was a public relations exercise and a show of one-upmanship. The Air Force wanted a mushroom cloud so large it would be visible on earth,” he said. “The US was lagging behind in the space race.”
The project planning included calculations of the behavior of the lunar dust by the famed astronomer Carl Sagan, who at that time was a young graduate student.
Sagan may have inadvertently breached security in 1959 by revealing the classified project in an application for an academic fellowship. Reiffel concurred that Sagan probably released classified information.
Sagan’s biographer, Keay Davidson, discovered that he had disclosed details of it when he applied for the prestigious Miller Institute graduate fellowship to Berkeley.
“Had Sagan wanted to make any disclosures to any party, as his boss at the time, I would have had to take forward any such request and Air Force permission would have been extremely unlikely in those very tense times,” said Reiffel.
The Eisenhower administration considered the lunar blast as a way to reassure Americans that the Soviet threat could be countered, while demonstrating to the Kremlin that the United States had an effective nuclear deterrent.
Under the scenario, a missile carrying a small nuclear device was to be launched from an undisclosed location and travel 238,000 miles to the moon, where it would be detonated upon impact. The planners decided it would have to be an atom bomb because a hydrogen bomb would have been too heavy for the missile.
Military officials apparently abandoned the idea because of the danger to people on Earth in case of a failure.