America’s Top-Secret Cold War Plan to Nuke the Moon

By Patrick Lynch

In 1958, the United States Air Force reportedly thought it was a good idea to detonate a nuclear bomb on the surface of the moon. The top secret project, known as ‘A Study of Lunar Research Flights’ but also called A119, was seemingly born out of a desire to intimidate the Soviet Union after it had launched Sputnik I.

Indeed, the plan was such a closely guarded secret that its very existence was denied until declassified projects were released to the public more than 40 years after the plan was mooted. The scientists involved in the project hoped that detonating a nuclear bomb on the moon would help answer some of the mysteries in the fields of planetary astronomy and astrogeology. If the device exploded on the surface instead of in a lunar crater, it would have been possible to see the ensuing flash of light with the naked eye.

Leonard Reiffel in 1963. New York Times

A Show of Strength

Details of A119 only came to light in 2000 when Leonard Reiffel, the physicist in charge of overseeing the possibility of detonating a nuke on the moon, spoke about the plan. The possibility was floated in 1958 after the USSR had launched its first manmade satellite, Sputnik I, into orbit in 1957. According to Reiffel, the military personnel he spoke with were seriously concerned about losing out to the Soviet Union in the Space Race.

When the Sputnik I launch was successful, it raised surprise and alarm in the United States. It came at a time when the U.S. had failed to launch its rival mission, Project Vanguard, on two occasions. At this stage, the Soviet Union took the lead in the Space Race and prompted the so-called ‘Sputnik crisis.’

The primary aim of the mission was nothing more than a PR exercise designed to show the USSR that America was the superior power. According to Reiffel, the Air Force wanted a mushroom cloud so gigantic that it could be seen from Earth. The plan was to explode the bomb on the dark side of the moon so that if it exploded on the moon’s edge, the sun would illuminate the mushroom cloud. The bomb would have been at least as large as the one used on Hiroshima at the end of the Second World War in 1945.

Basic outline of the weapon. Gloucestershire Transport History

Project A119

Reiffel did not explain how the explosion would have taken place but claimed it was technically possible at the time. Indeed, an intercontinental ballistic nuclear missile could have landed on the moon within two miles of its intended target. According to the physicist, top ranking officials in the U.S. Air Force approached him with the plan in 1958. They asked him to fast-track a project to investigate the possibility of exploding a nuclear bomb on the moon as well as analyzing the possible effects.

The Armour Research Foundation (ARF) had been studying the impact of nuclear explosions on the environment in 1949 and continued its research until 1962. After the Soviet success in 1957, the ARF secretly started to look into the possible consequences of a nuclear explosion on the moon’s surface. There were rumors that the USSR was planning to detonate a hydrogen bomb on the moon to commemorate the anniversary of the October Revolution.

Perhaps this is why researchers considered using a hydrogen bomb during the initial planning phase. However, the U.S. Air Force abandoned the idea because a bomb of that nature would be too heavy to transport. Also, if the missile failed to hit the moon, it would return to Earth and cause widespread destruction. Ultimately, scientists decided to use a much lighter W25 Warhead with a 1.7 kiloton yield. By the time the United States had developed the plan, the USSR had a similar project. Project E-1 involved plans to reach the moon while E-2 and E-3 entailed sending a probe to the far side of the moon. E-4 was the last phase of the project and involved detonating a nuclear strike on the moon to show its strength to the United States. As was the case with the American plan, the Soviets canceled the project due to fears regarding the launch vehicle’s safety and reliability.

U.S. officials wanted the explosion to be visible from Earth, and according to an assistant professor of nuclear science and engineering at MIT, Areg Danagoulian, it would have been. He said the explosion would have caused a noticeable rising of dust from the moon and a flash that might be visible from Earth. Reiffel wasn’t 100 percent sure why Project A119 did not launch, but he is glad that it didn’t. The 1967 UN Outer Space Treaty banned the use of nuclear weapons in space, so the moment had passed. What were the ramifications of A119?