The Cold War had many facets, and the decades-long conflict between the two post-WW2 superpowers was fought for many reasons. At its heart it was a fight over two competing ideologies and two different ways of life, each utterly alien to the other.
But that didn’t mean that the Cold War wasn’t also about national prestige as well, and this was seen most starkly and clearly in the space race. Many concepts and ideas were floated regarding utilizing space by both the Soviets and the US, and some were less plausible, or useful, than others.
Project A119 seems to have been one such plan, a top-secret initiative conceived by the United States Air Force in the late 1950s. This audacious plan called for detonating a nuclear bomb on the Moon, displaying American military and scientific prowess.
However, the project faced formidable challenges and widespread concerns, ranging from feasibility and environmental impacts to public backlash and international relations. Ultimately, Project A119 was abandoned, leaving a captivating tale of ambition and the boundaries of human exploration.
What was Project A119?
Project A119 was perhaps one of the stranger projects to come out of the space race in the 1950s. Also known as A Study of Lunar Research Flights, it was a top-secret American plan to detonate a nuclear bomb on the Moon. Why was the United States looking to nuke the Moon? Well, why not?
Ever since 1949 the ARF (Armour Research Foundation) had been investigating the effects of nuclear explosions on the environment. By May 1958 it had become curious as to what would happen if a nuke was detonated on the Moon. It hoped that doing so would unveil some of the mysteries of planetary astronomy and astrogeology.
In 1958 a ten-member team led by Leonard Reiffel, a respected American physicist, author, and educator was announced at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. It was their job to work out how visible a potential nuclear detonation would be from Earth, how it could benefit our scientific understanding, and what it would do to the Moon itself. America didn’t want to actually blow up the Moon, after all, that would’ve been crazy…
At first, a hydrogen bomb was proposed for Project A119, but this was quickly shot down. The United States Air Force said such a bomb would be too heavy and the US lacked a rocket powerful enough to propel such a large bomb to the Moon.
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Option two was a much more conservative, a W25 warhead. It was smaller, lightweight, and carried a (relatively) low yield 1.7 kiloton explosive. For reference, this was about one-tenth the power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima at the end of WW2.
The plan was for a rocket to carry the warhead to the dark side of the Moon where it would detonate upon impact. Astronomer Herard Kuiper and his doctoral student Carl Sagan had worked out that the resulting dust cloud would then be lit by the Sun, allowing the Earth to enjoy the warm glow of the nuclear explosion.
The timeline was tight, but it was hoped that the USAF would have a suitably powerful ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) ready by 1959. While the project remained top secret, everyone appeared to be extremely excited to be nuking the Moon.
What Was the Point?
ICBMs, nuclear warheads, and sending things into space all have one thing in common. They’re all very, very expensive. This raises the question, why was America so interested in detonating a nuclear bomb on the Moon? Was it really that interested in planetary astronomy and astrogeology?
Of course not. It’s no coincidence that Project A119 was commissioned at the height of the cold war. Ever since the detonations at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the US and USSR had been caught in an arms race, detonating ever larger, ever more deadly nuclear weapons.
The two powers were also caught up in a space race, a race that at this point in time the US felt they were losing. The USSR launched Sputnik 1 on 4 October 1957, the first artificial satellite to orbit the Earth. The US had been caught off-guard and its response, Project Vanguard, had failed to launch an American satellite after two attempts.
The press dubbed the whole debacle the “Sputnik Crisis”. Desperate to save face, the US launched Explorer 1, created DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), and founded NASA.
So, the US was desperate to catch up and show off its might. Detonating a bomb on the Moon seemed like the perfect way to do so. The fact there were rumors that the USSR was already planning its own version of Project A119 to celebrate the October Revolution only spurred things on. It was a race within a race.
So in that case, why didn’t the project ever go ahead? Both the US and USSR had demonstrated there were few lengths they wouldn’t go to one-up the other. So why not nuke the Moon?
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Simply put, cooler heads prevailed, and it was decided Project A119 might not be the best idea. There were several good arguments for not sending a nuke to the Moon.
1. Feasibility Concerns: As scientists and experts further examined the project, they realized that the technical challenges involved in accurately hitting the Moon with a nuclear weapon were substantial. The risks and uncertainties associated with achieving the desired outcome made the project less practical.
2. Public Backlash: The potential environmental and ethical implications of detonating a nuclear bomb on the Moon risked raising concerns among the public and the scientific community. There were worries about the potential contamination of space and the unknown effects such an explosion could have on the Moon and its surroundings. It was also feared that it could affect later attempts at Moon colonization, something we still haven’t managed.
3. International Relations: The United States and the Soviet Union were engaged in a fierce space race during the Cold War. The United States was concerned about the international backlash and negative perceptions that could arise if they were seen as militarizing space. The cancellation of Project A119 helped maintain a more peaceful image and avoid further escalation.
4. Budget Constraints: As the complexities of the project became clearer, the estimated costs escalated. Given the already significant financial demands of the space race and other military endeavors, the decision-makers saw the project as financially unsustainable.
A Bad Idea After All
In the end, detonating a nuclear bomb on the Moon was nothing more than another pipe dream. The signing of the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963 and the Outer Space Treaty in 1967 put an end to the dream for good. Both the US and the USSR had carried high-altitude nuclear explosions and the world at large was growing tired of the constant nuclear one-upmanship.
With the landing of Apollo 11 on the Moon on July 20, 1969, the space race was pretty much concluded. The US had won and there really wasn’t much point in ever returning to project A119. Apollo scientist Gary Latham did briefly suggest returning to a smaller version of the plan, but it was deemed not worth it.
Project A119 is another interesting footnote in the history of both the nuclear arms and space races. It’s a terrifying reminder of how far superpowers were willing to go to prove themselves. While Project A119 ended up on the scrapheap, we mustn’t forget that many others didn’t, causing untold damage.
Top Image: Thankfully Project A119 didn’t call for the total destruction of the Moon, but the plan was almost as unhinged in reality. Source: Mico Niemi / Public Domain.