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The United States Once Planned to Detonate a Nuclear Bomb on the Moon

Photo Credit: CORBIS / Getty Images / Cropped
Photo Credit: CORBIS / Getty Images / Cropped

During the Cold War, the United States worked on a plethora of secret, and often eccentric, plans designed to combat Soviet technological advances. The best known of these is President Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars Program, which would use space lasers to defend against nuclear attack. An entirely different plan was underway years earlier, however, one that would have seen the US detonate a nuclear bomb on the Moon.

Sputnik launch

By the late 1950s, the space race between the Americans and the Soviets had reached a peak, culminating in the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957. This changed everything, as this was the world’s first satellite and showed the US that the USSR was able to come up with great technological innovations before they were. What was arguably more concerning than Sputnik, was that the satellite had been launched into space on a ballistic missile.

Sputnik 1 on the launch pad.
Still from a recording of the launch showing a Vostok rocket carrying the Sputnik 1 satellite on the launch pad, 1957. (Photo Credit: Sovfoto/ Universal Images Group/ Getty Images)

This opened up a whole host of new problems if the Soviets were able to put weapons of that kind into space. In response to the perceived threat, the Americans decided to launch Project A119. In an effort to prove that they were actually the military superior power, the plan was to detonate a nuclear bomb on the Moon and create a mushroom cloud that could be seen from anywhere on Earth.

Project A119

Dr. Leonard Reiffel, known for his work on NASA’s Apollo Program, took the lead on the project. Another contributor was the famous astrophysicist Carl Sagan who was, at the time, a doctoral student working under another researcher assigned to the project. Sagan played a major role in calculating whether the desired mushroom cloud would be seen from Earth.

Carl Sagan smiling down as a paper while sitting beside another man.
Astronomer Carl Sagan, who was involved in Project A119, 1981. (Photo Credit: Tony Korody/ Sygma/ Getty Images)

This prestigious team set to work investigating the feasibility of a bomb being detonated on the Moon, and just how they would get it there. Initially the desire was to use a hydrogen bomb, but this was vetoed by the US Air Force which thought it would be too heavy to propel into space. Instead, they settled on a W25 warhead which was small enough that it could be carried to the far side of the Moon by a rocket.

The final verdict

It would explode on impact, and the resulting cloud would be illuminated by the sun. The verdict that Reiffel and his team came to was that a W25 could indeed be launched and landed on the Moon, the explosion could be seen from earth – although not as spectacularly as hoped – and it could have happened in 1959. The project was ultimately canceled in January 1959 due, in part, to concerns over what could happen to the public if something went wrong with the launch.

Cover of the 'Study of Lunar Research Flights' document.
Cover of the ‘Study of Lunar Research Flights’ which was declassified in 2000, June 19, 1959. (Photo Credit: Armour Research Foundation/ Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain)

Another big problem was that it would be extremely costly to undertake the project. There were also scientific concerns that nuclear fallout after the bomb was detonated would prevent further research or colonization of the Moon. Project A119 stayed secret until the 1990s when Keay Davidson, doing research for a book on Carl Sagan, discovered that he had included his involvement in the project on a scholarship application – a dramatic violation of national security.

Declassified reports

Soon after the biography was published in 1999, Reiffel also began to speak openly about his experience working on Project A119. By 2000, the final report, A Study of Lunar Research Flights, was declassified. In many interviews, Reiffel spoke about his distaste for the work in the years that followed, saying he was, “horrified that such a gesture to sway public opinion was ever considered.”

Astronaut Edwin E. Aldrin Jr stands near a scientific equipment on the moon.
Astronaut Edwin E. Aldrin Jr. stands on the surface of the Moon during the Apollo 11 missions, July 20, 1969. (Photo Credit: NASA/ Newsmakers/ Getty Images)

He expressed the same opinion while working on the project: “I made it clear at the time there would be a huge cost to science of destroying a pristine lunar environment, but the US Air Force were mainly concerned about how the nuclear explosion would play on earth.”

More from us: What Finally Brought an End to the Cold War?

Fortunately for all, the US never made the plan operational. As one astute scientist of the time phrased it, “You know, we might want to walk up there someday. Maybe we don’t want to blow the hell out of it before we do.”

Rosemary Giles

Rosemary Giles is a history content writer with Hive Media. She received both her bachelor of arts degree in history, and her master of arts degree in history from Western University. Her research focused on military, environmental, and Canadian history with a specific focus on the Second World War. As a student, she worked in a variety of research positions, including as an archivist. She also worked as a teaching assistant in the History Department.

Since completing her degrees, she has decided to take a step back from academia to focus her career on writing and sharing history in a more accessible way. With a passion for historical learning and historical education, her writing interests include social history, and war history, especially researching obscure facts about the Second World War. In her spare time, Rosemary enjoys spending time with her partner, her cats, and her horse, or sitting down to read a good book.