That Time the USAF Nearly Nuked the Moon

The Space Race was a wild time, especially in its early years, when the United States was shocked and humiliated by Sputnik and Gagarin, and threw money at various insane ways to take the lead. I’ve already written about the proposed one-way trip to the Moon; other highlights include an inflatable re-entry pod and flying to Mars in a Gemini capsule.  Today I’ll share a little history about one of the craziest: Project A119, the plan to detonate a nuclear warhead on the surface of the Moon.

The study in question, innocuously named.

Leonard Reiffel at the Illinois Institute of Technology led ten researchers in devising this scheme, in 1958 and 1959. At that point, neither side had managed to send anything to the Moon, so merely hitting it would have been a milestone—to take things one quite a few steps further, the plan was to impact the Moon with a hydrogen bomb, creating an explosion visible from Earth. This was intended to be an unsubtle riposte to Soviet claims of superiority in space. Now, to be fair, it also had scientific objectives, as it might have provided some data on the Moon’s composition, but even the researchers admitted Project A119 was mostly a PR stunt.

It became clear early on that the warhead would be too bulky to fly. Hydrogen bombs at the time were so huge that aircraft struggled to carry them, and satellites like Sputnik and Vanguard were at the limit of what rockets were capable of, so the US Air Force, sponsoring the project, told Reiffel and his team that they had to scale back their ambitions. The new plan was to use a W25 warhead, yielding only 1.7 kilotons. This would have been delivered to the far side of the moon, then detonated there, and the cloud of dust blasted off by the explosion would have been visible from Earth. Notably, the graduate student who modeled this dust cloud was one Carl Sagan.

The W25 was primarily an air-to-air weapon, used on the AIR-2 Genie missile. The delivery mechanism for Project A119 might have looked something like this. 

Project A119 was canceled in 1959, due to justified concerns about how the public would respond to nuking the moon. There was also the price tag, and the lack of real scientific value, and the risk of a launch failure scattering radioactive material everywhere—it was more a display of American bravado than anything altogether sensible. It is probably for the best that it became nothing more than an amusing footnote in history.






One thought on “That Time the USAF Nearly Nuked the Moon

Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Website Powered by

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: