In the 1950s, while the USSR seemed to be leading the space race, American scientists came up with a bizarre plan: bombard the surface of the Moon to scare the Soviets.
The moment when astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped on the surface of the moon in 1969 is one of the most memorable in history.
But what would have happened if the Moon that Armstrong walked on had been marked by huge craters from the effects of nuclear bombardments?
At first reading, the title of the research paper – A Study of Lunar Research Flights, Vol 1 – sounds bland and peaceful. The kind of document that’s easy to ignore. And that was probably the point.
Depicted in the center is a shield representing an atom, a nuclear bomb and a mushroom cloud – the emblem of the Air Force Special Weapons Center at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, which played a key role in the development and testing of nuclear weapons, sceiebbc.com.
Down at the bottom is the author’s name: L Reiffel, or Leonard Reiffel, one of America’s leading nuclear physicists. He worked with Enrico Fermi, the creator of the world’s first nuclear reactor, known as“the architect of the nuclear bomb”.
Project A119, as it was known, was a top-secret proposal to detonate a hydrogen bomb on the moon. Hydrogen bombs were far more destructive than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 and were the newest technology in nuclear weapons design at the time. Requested by senior Air Force officers to“accelerate”project, Reiffel produced numerous reports between May 1958 and January 1959 on the feasibility of the plan.
Incredibly, one of the scientists who enabled this horrible plan was future visionary Carl Sagan. In fact, the existence of the project was only discovered in the 1990s, as Sagan mentioned it in an application to an elite university.
Although it may have helped answer some rudimentary scientific questions about the Moon, the primary purpose of Project A119 was to make a show of force. The bomb was to explode on the aptly named Terminator Line – the boundary between the light and dark side of the Moon – to create a bright flash of light that anyone, but especially the Kremlin, would have been able to see with the naked eye. The absence of an atmosphere meant that there would have been no mushroom cloud.
There is only one plausible explanation for proposing such a horrible plan and his motivation lies somewhere between insecurity and desperation.
It didn’t help American nerves that Sputnik was launched on top of a Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile.
In the 1950s, it didn’t look like America was winning the Cold War.
Political and popular opinion in the United States maintained that the Soviet Union had a head start in increasing its nuclear arsenal, particularly in the development and number of nuclear bombers (“the difference between bombers”) and nuclear missiles (“the difference between rockets”).
In 1952, the US exploded the first hydrogen bomb. Three years later, the Soviets shocked Washington by exploding their own bomb. In 1957, they went further, stealing a lead in the space race by launching Sputnik 1, the first man-made satellite in orbit around the world.
All this time, American schoolchildren were shown the famous informational film“Duck and Cover”in which Bert, the animated turtle, teaches children what to do in the event of a nuclear attack.
Later that year, American newspapers, citing a high-ranking intelligence source, reported that “The Soviets will H-bomb the Moon on the anniversary of the November 7 revolution”(The Daily Times, New Philadelphia, Ohio), and then followed up with information that the Soviets may already be planning to launch a nuclear-armed missile at our nearest neighbor.
As with other Cold War rumors, its origins are difficult to understand.
Oddly enough, this fear probably also motivated the Soviets to develop their plans. Codenamed E4, their plan was a close copy of the Americans’, and was ultimately rejected by the Soviets for similar reasons—the fear that a failed launch could result in the bomb falling on Soviet territory. They described the potential of a “highly undesirable international incident”.
He may have simply realized that landing on the moon was a bigger prize. But the A119 project would have worked.
In 2000, Reiffel spoke his mind. He confirmed that the project was“technically feasible”and that the explosion would have been visible on Earth.
The loss of the pristine lunar environment was of less concern to the US Air Force, despite scientists’ concerns.
“The A119 project was one of the ideas that were floated for an interesting response to Sputnik.”says Alex Wellerstein, historian of nuclear science and technology, “which included the downing of Sputnik”.They refer to them as stunts…designed to impress people.
“Now, what they eventually did was put up their own satellite, and that took some time, but they continued this project somewhat seriously, at least until the late 1950s. It’s a pretty interesting window into kind of an American mentality at the time. This drive to compete in a way that creates something very impressive. I think in this case, impressive and creepy are a little too close to each other.”
He is not sure that fear of anti-Communist witch-hunts drove nuclear physicists to work on the project.“Anyone in these roles is probably self-selected to some degree”, he says. “They don’t mind doing this work. If they were afraid, they could do a million other things. A lot of scientists did this during the Cold War; they said physics had become too political.”
Most of the details of the A119 project are still shrouded in mystery. Many of them were apparently destroyed.