The time we almost nuked the moon

The year was 1958. The Cold War was in full swing, Dwight Eisenhower was halfway into his second term as president, and the United States was in locked in a tense competition with the Soviet Union to get ahead in what we now call the space race — and it was losing.

A year earlier, the Soviets had flexed their muscle by launching Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite the world had ever seen. The U.S. then responded in kind by launching its own satellite, Explorer 1, a few months later. But coming in second wasn’t good enough.

To reestablish the U.S. as the world’s preeminent superpower, leaders were determined to do something bigger, more impressive, and above all, something that the Soviets hadn’t done already.

It was quite a conundrum. On one hand, a normal military demonstration wouldn’t be enough, since it didn’t showcase any mastery of space. On the other hand, a manned mission to space might do the trick, but NASA was only in the early stages of preparation for such a feat, and wouldn’t launch its moon mission for another decade. They needed a happy medium.

And so the top-secret plan to nuke the moon was born.

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Project A119

“After the Soviets launched their satellite, there were several committees formed to look into ways to sort of restore a sense of American technical superiority,” says Alex Wellerstein, a nuclear historian at the Stevens Institute of Technology, who Digital Trends spoke with in an interview. “One of the ideas that was rated fairly high among these committees was the idea of setting off a nuclear weapon on the moon, because that would show America’s space capabilities and weapons capabilities.”

The plan, dubbed Project A119 (and kept top-secret until it was revealed by a former NASA executive in 2000), was to detonate a nuclear bomb in a crater on the lunar surface to study the effects of the blast, which would give scientists an idea of the geology of the moon, and in the process, also provide the Soviets with a terrifying demonstration of what America’s weapons could do.

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It checked all the boxes. The team behind the project (which included a young Carl Sagan) even believed the blast would be visible from Earth — potentially to the naked eye — which the government figured would be great propaganda.

Even the possible downsides weren’t particularly bad — it wouldn’t do any lasting damage to the universe at large. Despite the reputation that nuclear weapons have, detonating one on the moon probably wouldn’t have left a significant amount of radiation, so it wouldn’t put any future visitors at risk, according to Wellerstein.

“The amount of radiation that you’re going to be creating — or more specifically, the amount of contamination — would be relatively low. We’re talking about relatively low-yield nuclear weapons. There would be some contamination,” Wellerstein says. “My recollection from the report is that they calculated that a fair amount of the radioactive byproducts would basically not end up staying on the moon. They would be ejected because of the lack of atmosphere and things like that. Is that true? We don’t know.”

Closer to home

Project A119 was, obviously, never carried out. Cooler heads ultimately prevailed, and the U.S. decided that instead of blowing up the moon, it would send a man there first. But as much as it might seem like we averted disaster in this instance, Wallerstein is quick to point out that Project A119 pales in comparison to many of the nuclear experiments the U.S. has carried out since then.

He contends that there were a lot of ideas carried out during the nuclear era that would be considered insane by today’s standards. Things like blowing up pristine islands in the Pacific Ocean, or building entire fake towns just to see how they’d hold up against a nuclear blast. At one point, scientists even considered the idea of using large nuclear bombs to dig massive canals.

One of the craziest things actually did with a nuclear bomb was blow it up about 250 miles above the Pacific Ocean. That test was called Starfish Prime, and the nuclear bomb used for the test was 1.4 megatons — about 100 times larger than the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. The bomb was what’s called a “Thor missile” (no relation to the author of this piece). It created an electromagnetic pulse that blew out streetlights in Hawaii, which was roughly 900 miles away, and damaged satellites. It also created a temporary artificial radiation belt in the atmosphere.

Wellerstein says that the craziest thing we’ve done with nuclear bombs is something we’re still doing on some level today. He says the fact that we have so many of them and that they’re ready to be fired at populated areas at a moment’s notice is quite crazy.

“Even setting off a nuclear weapon on the moon is not as bad of an idea as having 10,000 nuclear weapons, many of them multi-megaton in range, and having them on a sort of 24-hour hair-trigger alert,” Wellerstein says. “In a way, the stuff they did do was a lot crazier, but we’ve sort of normalized it.”

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