A 40,000-strong crowd was transfixed on President Kennedy.
Spellbound by his address that warm and sunny September day, they hung on his every word, on every syllable of his speech, one that was now climbing toward its dramatic apex. “But why, some say, the Moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask, why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?”
Here we go. The briefest of pauses. The humid air shimmered in front of the President’s dais.
“We choose to nuke the Moon,” he declared—and applause rang out from the stands of Rice Stadium. “We choose to nuke to the Moon, to showcase America’s spacefaring might, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because the challenge of nuclear supremacy is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, on Earth and on the worlds beyond.”
Kennedy, of course, didn’t say these words. His famous speech in Houston on September 12, 1962, was about sending astronauts to the lunar surface. You probably already knew that, but I just wanted to make it clear; I once knew someone who thought Tarantino’s revisionist war film, Inglorious Basterds, was a true depiction of the end of the Second World War.
So: no, America did not nuke the Moon. But, remarkably, for a time, the US Air Force were tempted to do just that—not to destroy it, but to show off the country’s military and scientific might to the Soviets in the most over-the-top way possible. For the briefest of moments, some suggested the best way to win the space race was not to land astronauts on the Moon, but to tag that magnificent desolation with radioactive graffiti.
At this point you might be wondering: how the fuck did anyone think nuking the Moon was a good idea?
On October 4, 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial Earth satellite, into low Earth orbit. As Sputnik bleeps were heard on radios across the world, some of America’s top brass thought: damn, that’s embarrassing. So, they began to ponder: “What kind of crazy ideas can we come up with that would one-up the Soviets?” says Michael Neufeld, a senior curator in the Space History Department of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC.
That same year, on November 1, a rather curious article appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The headline:
“LATEST RED RUMOR: THEY’LL BOMB MOON”
“The latest rumor going the rounds is that the Russians plan to explode a rocket-borne H-bomb on the moon on or about Nov. 7,” the article reads. “If that’s true — look out! The rocket and its cargo of violence are more likely than not to boomerang.” By boomerang, they mean that the rocket may miss the Moon and swing back around to hit Earth.
The article goes on: “The Russians… will announce this in advance so the world can see how far they have progressed in missile warfare. They intend to fire their H-bomb rocket when the moon is in such a phase that the bomb will explode in the dark portion where the flash will be easily seen from the earth.”
The intended response to that article was something along the lines of: ‘oh, those pesky Soviets, how could they be so reckless?’ But around the same time, behind closed doors, a handful of those high up in the American military started to fancy the idea for themselves. The reported rumor was unsubstantiated, but hey: just in case the Soviets did want to do this, perhaps it might be better if America did it first?
“It’s just a pissing contest,” says Dan Moriarty, a lunar geologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “Except one involving blowing up the Moon.”
This outré idea, says Neufeld, was “very much the product of the early space race.” Sputnik’s success had put America on the backfoot. Nuking the Moon would be a hell of a way to catch up.
This is where the polymathic Leonard Reiffel, a physicist, author, educator, and inventor, enters the picture. At the time, Reiffel worked at Chicago’s Armour Research Foundation, a sort of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory for atomic energy, rocket, and missile technology enthusiasts. As Vince Houghton, the director of the NSA’s National Cryptologic Museum in Fort Meade in Maryland, reports in his book Nuking the Moon, the Air Force approached Reiffel in the late-1950s with an unusual query: what would happen if we detonated a nuclear warhead on the Moon? Would it be feasible, and what would the blast look like?
This was the moment that Project A119, the plan to turn that hypothetical into a reality, was born. Reiffel and several colleagues set to work. His team included a few famous names: Gerard Kuiper — the planetary scientist whose name adorns the Kuiper Belt, the halo of icy objects circumnavigating the Sun beyond the orbit of Neptune — was on the roster; so was a young graduate student named Carl Sagan, whose job was to mathematically model the dust cloud created by the lunar nuke’s blast.
Project A119 may sound absurd in 2021. But this sort of bombastic, bonkers idea was par for the course in the 1950s. Back then, nukes were all the rage.
In 1958, the US Atomic Energy Commission began Project Plowshare, which explored the feasibility of using nuclear explosions for an array of industrial applications, from mining to digging out new canals and harbors. Twenty-seven nuclear explosion tests later, the project concluded that using nukes to essentially dig big holes would prove to be too hard a sell to the communities living nearby. (The Soviets, of course, had their own version of Plowshare. They conducted about 124 “peaceful” nuclear explosions before also concluding that spreading radiation everywhere was probably not the best idea.)
Blowing up nukes in space, too, had become the hot new hobby for the two Cold War superpowers. The most infamous of these was part of the US military’s Starfish Prime project: on July 9, 1962, a thermonuclear warhead exploded 250 miles above the Pacific Ocean — a blast whose electromagnetic pulse knocked out telephone lines and streetlights across Hawai’i.
So, you know, why not nuke the Moon?
In July 1959, Reiffel et al. published their report, euphemistically titled “A Study of Lunar Research Flights”. Even though a nuclear explosion on the lunar surface would not produce a typical mushroom cloud feature — the Moon lacks an appreciable atmosphere, so instead of a cloud of debris moving dynamically through a gaseous soup, you would just get a cloud of dust rocketing up into the vacuum of space —
it was concluded that the flash would be visible from Earth.
“It almost seems like a made-for-TV event,” says Moriarty. Indeed, that was the point: it was meant to be both a moral boost for the American public, and an epic flipping of the bird to those dastardly spacefaring communists. The report also suggested placing various scientific instruments on the lunar nearside so they could record the effects of the blast. For example, the seismic waves unleashed by the explosion, which would have plunged into, then out of, the Moon’s innards, would have given scientists an insight into the layer cake composition of the lunar underworld.
Bringing Project A119 to fruition wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility. “It’s a lot easier to park a nuke on the moon than it is to land a human,” says Moriarty. But it still would have represented a major technological undertaking, one with a hefty price tag. As Reiffel and company noted in their report, it would have also been a considerably risky endeavor: “It is also certain that, unless the climate of world opinion were well-prepared in advance, a considerable negative reaction could be stimulated,” they wrote. Even pre-warned, it’s difficult to imagine the world reacting positively to seeing a nuclear explosion leave a great big scar on the Moon.
If, somehow, this grim firework show had come to pass, it’s likely the Soviets would have eventually responded in kind. Much like the race to build and test the biggest nuclear weapons happening on terra firma, the Soviets and Americans may have spent the subsequent years blowing up increasingly powerful nuclear bombs on the lunar nearside — and thereby creating a radioactive wasteland repulsive to both astronauts and cosmonauts alike.
Thankfully, we don’t live in that nightmarish alternate future. Scientists, including Reiffel et al., were concerned that we knew so little about the Moon — including whether life may exist in hypothetical, warm pockets within the crust — that nuking it would be nothing short of reckless. The American powers-that-be, too, were worried that this preposterous act of saber-rattling would have been a little too provocative. According to Neufeld, it’s doubtful that Presidents Eisenhower or Kennedy would have ever taken the idea seriously.
The prospect of a failed launch was also causing some anxiety. The first Starfish Prime launch, on June 20, 1962, was a spectacular failure: the rocket disintegrated mid-flight, and the nuclear warhead exploded, snowing radioactive matter across the Pacific Ocean. If Project A119 resulted in the accidental irradiation of, say, Florida, that would at the very least be politically awkward.
And so, Project A119 died a well-deserved death. Any chances of resurrection were killed off by two international treaties. The first, the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty, banned nuclear weapons tests underwater, in the atmosphere, and in outer space. The second, the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, mandated (among other things) that nuclear weapons cannot be deployed or used in space in any manner, and that the Moon is to be used for peaceful purposes only.
This, Houghton notes, also put a stop to the Soviet’s own Moon-nuking dreams. That reported rumor may have been bogus, but the USSR did end up growing fond of the idea of detonating a nuclear weapon on the lunar surface. But out of concern that a failed launch may irradiate part of the Motherland or, more troublingly, another nation’s soil, they killed off the plan.
Instead, on July 20, 1969, as Michael Collins spent his time ruminating on human existence in the Moon’s shadow, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin gallivanted about on an ancient sea of frozen lava. Instead of using nukes to paint a picture of the Moon’s geologic viscera, American astronauts placed seismometers on the lunar nearside and used naturally occurring moonquakes to achieve that goal. Earth’s pale guardian became not a radioactive wasteland, but a source of scientific revelations, its stories of planetary formation and destruction etched in volcanic stone.
But we shouldn’t judge ourselves too highly. We may not have nuked the Moon, but thanks to our addiction to fossil fuels and other buried technology-enabling treasures, we are comprehensively trashing the only home we’ve ever known. “Have we really come that far?” says Moriarty.