At the dawn of the Space Age, our closest astral neighbour the Moon warped military minds into thinking it should be the new battleground for humanity.
The race between the USSR and the USA to put man on the Moon in the 1960s, was a way of showcasing to the world who had the most advanced technology, and by implication it also showed who had the best missile technology to launch a nuclear attack during a massive political and technological pissing contest.
The Soviet Union made the first psychological attack by launching Sputnik I, the first artificial, unmanned Earth satellite on 4 October 1957. It was a potent symbol of Soviet superiority, and put the US on the back fooot.
U.S. Air Force Brigadier General Homer A. Boushey declared it:
[It] has been said that “he who controls the moon controls the Earth.” Our planners must carefully evaluate this statement for, if true – and I, for one, think it is – then the U.S. must control the moon.
One of the weirdest consequences of such thoughts was that in 1958, behind closed doors, military leaders on both sides were simultaneously planning to launch nuclear strikes at the Moon.
Rather than one small step for mankind, the US Air Force entertained thoughts of launching one big nuclear blast for all mankind, to show off the military might of the USA.
It was entitled the harmless sounding ‘A Study of Lunar Research Flights’ and given the top-secret code name Project A119.
Physicist Leonard Reiffel was put in charge of the project at the Armour Research Foundation of the Illinois Institute of Technology. From May 1958 to January 1959 Reiffel produced eight reports on the feasibility of the plan.
The intention was to explode a bomb, as big as the one used at Hiroshima, on the edge between the lunar day and night.
Its detonation would quickly illuminate the lunar surface, then the light of the sun would show the rise of a huge expanding sphere of dust and fire generated by the explosion – what could possibly go wrong?!
This would have been a PR stunt to literally out-shine the Soviets and show who was in charge of the fate of the Moon. Reiffel thought that at that time they did have intercontinental ballistic nuclear missiles capable of hitting a selected target on the Moon within an accuracy of two miles.
Popular science expert Carl Sagan was even drafted in to study if this explosion might enable them to uncover microbial life on the Moon, but the main concern was in determining how visible the nuclear cloud would be to people on Earth.
As Reiffel said:
Thankfully, the thinking changed.
No explanation was given for ending the project, but in likelihood there would have been a public outcry at such a wilful destruction of the lunar environment.
The project was so secret that Reiffel was only willing to talk about it in 2000 and reflected that: “I am horrified that such a gesture to sway public opinion was ever considered.”
The Soviet plan to nuke the Moon was put forward by nuclear physicist Yakov Borisovich Zel’dovich, and was designated E-4 as part of the unmanned Luna program to explore the Moon.
Its main aim was to indisputably and dramatically prove to the world that the Soviet Union was able to successfully target the Lunar surface with a rocket.
Detailed plans were made for the project and a mock-up of the craft was even produced. It was basically a container with the nuclear charge inside, surrounded by initiator rods. Acting like an ant-shipping mine, it would explode on impact with the Moon’s surface.
The project didn’t get any further because -brace yourselves- there were reported concerns about the dangers of sending a nuclear device into space.
If the rocket stages failed shortly after blast off it could explode on or over Soviet territory, if it failed a little later it would nuke a foreign territory possibly causing massive loss of life and the outbreak of World War III.
Equally, chilling scenarios were that it might accidentally go into Earth orbit threatening to uncontrollably re-enter and nuke some unsuspecting country, or it might miss the Moon and send this lethal object around the Sun. Zel’dovich agreed it was a bad idea, and the Luna program sensibly concentrated on peaceful Lunar landings instead.
The nail in the coffin for the military exploitation of the Moon came with the creation of the ‘Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies’, or ‘The Outer Space Treaty’ for short.
This United Nations initiative came into force in October 1967 and includes the principles that:
States shall not place nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in orbit or on celestial bodies or station them in outer space in any other manner…The Moon and other celestial bodies shall be used exclusively for peaceful purposes…States shall avoid harmful contamination of space and celestial bodies.
Well the treaty worked seemingly, now politicians are just back to intermittently threatening each other with nuclear war while the moon stays out of it…