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Project A119

U.S. Had Secret Plan to Nuke Moon During Cold War

The U.S. considered detonating an atomic bomb on the moon in an effort to intimidate the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War

During 1958 and 1959 the US Air Force studied project A119 which called for the explosion of a nuclear weapon on the surface of the Moon. This project remained secret until 2000, when Leonard Reiffel, a former scientist of the Illinois Institute of Technology revealed its existence.

It may sound like a plot straight out of a science fiction novel, but a U.S. mission to blow up the moon with a nuke was very real in the 1950s. At the height of the space race, the U.S. considered detonating an atom bomb on the moon as a display of America’s Cold War muscle. The secret project, innocuously titled ‘A Study of Lunar Research Flights’ and nicknamed ‘Project A119,’ was never carried out.

In 1957 the Soviet Union launched Sputnik into low earth orbit. It was the planet?s first artificial satellite?and much to the apprehension of the Pentagon and U.S. policymakers, it belonged to the Russians?. The Space Race had begun and America was losing.

The decades that followed were a parade of Cold War paranoia, technological innovation and bizarre military strategies. Both the East and West wanted to make sure the world knew who was the top superpower. But how?

Being the first to the moon was the top prize. In the early days of the Space Race, both countries thought the best way to prove they?d been to the moon was to nuke it.

Today it seems ridiculous that anyone would try to nuke the moon, but the political and cultural tensions of the 1950s made desperate plans seems sensible. In 1958, the Armour Research Foundation?the precursor to the Illinois Institute of Technology?developed a plan with guidance from the Air Force.

Designated Project A119, the ARF?s inquiry looked into the possible effects of a nuclear detonation on the lunar surface between 1949 and 1962. Partly, the studies were a response to growing concern over atmospheric effects of nuclear testing?but not merely.

?I was told the Air Force was very interested in the possibility of a surprise demonstration explosion,?with all its obvious implications for public relations and the Cold War,? Leonard Reiffel, the director of the project, wrote in Nature.

The explosion would also tell scientists and the military a lot about the effectiveness of nuclear weapons in space. In a declassified report about the project written by Reiffel in 1959, he claimed that ?certain military objectives would be served since information would be supplied concerning the environment of space, concerning detection of nuclear device testing in space and concerning the?capability of nuclear weapons for space warfare.?

The US Air Force commissioned NASA to crunch the numbers, a research project helmed by executive Leonard Reiffel.?A ten-member team led by Reiffel was assembled to study the potential visibility of the explosion, benefits to science, and implications for the lunar surface. Among the members of the research team were astronomer Gerard Kuiper and his doctoral student Carl Sagan, who was responsible for the mathematical projection of the expansion of a dust cloud in space around the Moon, an essential element in determining its visibility from Earth.

Scientists initially considered using a hydrogen bomb for the project, but the United States Air Force vetoed this idea due to the weight of such a device, as it would be too heavy to be propelled by the missile which would have been used. It was then decided to use a W25 warhead, a small, lightweight warhead with a relatively low 1.7 kiloton yield. By contrast, the Little Boy bomb dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima in 1945 had a yield of some 13?18 kilotons. The W25 would be carried by a rocket toward the unlit side of the Moon, near the terminator, where it would detonate on impact. The dust cloud resulting from the explosion would be lit by the Sun and therefore visible from Earth. According to Reiffel, the Air Force’s progress in the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles would have made such a launch feasible by 1959

It was Sagan?s rather loose method of keeping national secrets that led to the public recognition of the project. While researching a biography on Sagan, a writer named Keay Davidson reviewed Sagan?s scholarship application for the University of California Berkley?s Miller Institute. Bizarrely enough, the late Sagan provided highly classified details about his involvement of the project. When the 1999 book?Carl Sagan: A Life?was published detailing the plan, Reiffel emerged to set the story straight, claiming that ?the foremost intent was to impress the world with the prowess of the United States,? and ?It was a PR device, without question, in the minds of the people from the Air Force.?


Shortly after the Soviets struck first in 1957 with the successful launch of Sputnik I, the United States passed the National Aeronautics and Space Act, and NASA began operation.

At the same time, the two countries were embroiled in a fervent nuclear race. With the development of the first nuclear warheads in the early 1940s, the United States sparked the ?Atomic Age? and subsequently spent somewhere north of $8.75 trillion to produce 70,000 nuclear missiles. By the early 1950s, an air of nuclear optimism pervaded the U.S. In the same regard that the nuclear bomb had rendered all other explosives obsolete, the nuclear power plant would one-up coal, oil, and other sources of energy. At the Nevada Test Site (the U.S Department of Energy?s primary nuclear bomb testing ground) thousands gathered in folding chairs to watch atomic detonations.

Following a Post-Hiroshima rhetoric, America?s citizens were ready for nuclear technology to be utilized in positive, productive ways. Then, the U.S. Government put a top-secret plan in place to nuke the Moon.

U.S. Had Secret Plan To Nuke Moon During Cold War.

U.S. Had Secret Plan To Nuke the Moon During Cold War.

As far back as 1949, Chicago?s Armour Research Institute (known as the IIT Research Institute today) had studied the effects of nuclear explosions on the environment and atmosphere. In 1958, the program was?approached?by the United States Air Force and asked to determine the hypothetical consequences of a nuclear explosion on the Moon. Sensing that national morale was low after the Soviets launched Sputnik, the U.S. government coined a plan: they?d nuke the Moon, causing an explosion so big that it?d be visible from Earth. They hoped the explosion would not only boost the confidence and approval of Americans, but serve as a show of power to the Soviets.

Led by renowned physicist Leonard Reiffel, a ten-person research team was formed under a rather auspicious project title: “A Study of Lunar Research Flights” (or, “Project A-119”). Immediately, the team began?studying??the potential visibility of the explosion, benefits to science, and implications for the lunar surface.? An essential element to ensuring that the explosion would be seen from Earth was determining the mathematical projection of the expansion of the resulting dust cloud in space; Carl Sagan, a young doctoral student at the time, was brought in to help find an answer.


Project A119, also known as “A Study of Lunar Research Flights,? was a top-secret plan developed in 1958 by the United States Air Force. The aim of the project was to detonate a nuclear bomb on the Moon which would help in answering some of the mysteries in planetary astronomy and astrogeology. If the explosive device detonated on the surface, not in a lunar crater, the flash of explosive light would have been faintly visible to people on earth with their naked eye, a show of force resulting in a possible boosting of domestic morale in the capabilities of the United States, a boost that was needed after the Soviet Union took an early lead in the Space Race and was also working on a similar project.

The project was never carried out, being cancelled primarily out of a fear of a negative public reaction, with the potential militarization of space that it would also have signified, and because a moon landing would undoubtedly be a more popular achievement in the eyes of the American and international public alike. A similar project by the Soviet Union also never came to fruition.

The existence of the US project was revealed in 2000 by a former executive at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Leonard Reiffel, who led the project in 1958. A young Carl Sagan was part of the team responsible for predicting the effects of a nuclear explosion in vacuum and low gravity and in evaluating the scientific value of the project. The project documents remained secret for nearly 45 years, and despite Reiffel’s revelations, the United States government has never officially recognized its involvement in the study.

Reiffel, is believed to be the only official to have publicly confirmed his association with the project. However, a 190-page document called ?A Study of Lunar Research Flights, Volume I? is?available online through the Information for the Defense Community database.?The document, available in PDF format, is credited to Reiffel and bears the heading of Air Force Special Weapons Center and the Air Research and Development Command based at Kirkland Air Force Base in New Mexico.

The abstract reads:

Nuclear detonations in the vicinity of the moon are considered in this report along with scientific information which might be obtained from such explosions. The military aspect is aided by investigation of space environment, detection of nuclear device testing, and capability of weapons in space. A study was conducted of various theories of the moon?s structure and origin, and a description of the probable nature of the lunar surface is given. The areas discussed in some detail are optical lunar studies, seismic observations, lunar surface and magnetic fields, plasma and magneti3 field effects, and organic matter on the moon.

In fact, the report reveals very little on the A119 project and the main reason of its interest is that it provides an overview of lunar science at the very early days of lunar exploration.

Some parts make for a good reading even today. Chapter IV in particular, details the knowledge to be gained from seismic studies on the surface on the Moon. Chapter VIII, on the possible presence of organic matter on the Moon, betrays the association of a young Carl Sagan with the project.

It is worth noting that the report does not carry any “secret” marking!

Reiffel spoke to several publications about the project in 2000. His statements then coincided with a then-new Sagan biography, which suggested that the celebrity scientist might have breached security by?revealing the classified project in an application for an academic fellowship.

Reiffel, revealed:?It was clear the main aim of the proposed detonation was a PR exercise and a show of one-upmanship. The Air Force wanted a mushroom cloud so large it would be visible on earth, the US was lagging behind in the space race.’

‘The explosion would obviously be best on the dark side of the moon and the theory was that if the bomb exploded on the edge of the moon, the mushroom cloud would be illuminated by the sun.’ The bomb would have been at least as large as the one used on Hiroshima at the end of World War II.

‘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,’

Although he believes the blast would have had little environmental impact on Earth, its crater may have ruined the face of the ‘man in the moon’.

Reiffel would not reveal how the explosion would have taken place. But he confirmed it was ‘certainly technically feasible’ and that at the time an intercontinental ballistic nuclear missile would have been capable of hitting a target on the moon with an accuracy of within two miles.

Reiffel was approached by senior US Air Force officers in 1958, who asked him to ‘fast-track’ a project to investigate the visibility and effects of a nuclear explosion on the moon. The top-secret Project A119, was entitled ‘A Study of Lunar Research Flights’.

Had the project been made public there would have been an outcry.

Many Cold War documents are still classified in the US, but details of Project A119 emerged after a biography of celebrated US scientist and astronomer Carl Sagan was published.

Sagan, was famous for popularising science in the US and pioneering the study of potential life on other planets. At the Armour Foundation in Chicago was hired by Reiffel to undertake mathematical modelling on the expansion of an exploding dust cloud in the space around the moon. This was key to calculating the visibility of such a cloud from the Earth.

“Now it seems ridiculous and unthinkable,” said Reiffel, who later served as a deputy director at NASA during the Apollo program. “But things were remarkably tense back then.”

Sagan went on to become a worldwide celebrity for popularizing science on television. He died in 1996.

The U.S. space program was sputtering while the Soviet Union had launched Sputnik and a pair of lunar probes.

The Eisenhower administration considered the lunar blast as a way to reassure Americans that the Soviet threat could be countered while demonstrating to the Kremlin that the United States had an effective nuclear deterrent.

Under the scenario, a missile carrying a small nuclear device was to be launched from an undisclosed location and travel 238,000 miles to the moon, where it would be detonated upon impact. The planners decided it would have to be an atom bomb because a hydrogen bomb would have been too heavy for the missile.

Reiffel said the nation’s young space program probably could have carried out the mission by 1959, when the Air Force deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Military officials apparently abandoned the idea because of the danger to people on Earth in case of a failure. The scientists also registered concerns about contaminating the moon with radioactive material, Reiffel said.


In the 2003 documentary?The Fog of War, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara talked about sitting down with his chiefs to discuss the Limited Test Ban Treaty, which prohibited above-ground nuclear testing.

They said, ?The Soviets will cheat.? I said, ?How will they cheat?? You won?t believe this, but they said, ?They?ll test them behind the moon.? I said, ?You?re out of your minds.? I said, ?That?s absurd.?

But it wasn?t totally absurd. America wasn?t the only country that once thought exploding the surface of the moon was a realistic idea. High on the success of Sputnik, two Russian scientists???Sergei Pavlovich Korolev and Mstislav Vsyevolodovich Keldysh???proposed a series of projects?in 1958 that would take the Kremlin all the way to the moon and let the world know they?d been there.

It was designated the ?E Project,? and it involved a number of steps. E-1 called for getting a spacecraft to the moon. E-2 and E-3 involved orbiting around the moon and taking pictures of its surface. E-4 was when things got weird. It involved detonating a small nuclear charge on the lunar surface.

Famed Russian rocket engineer Boris Chertok?spoke with Reuters?in 1999 about the E-4 project:

In 1958 there was a plan to send an atomic bomb to the moon, so that astronomers across the world could photograph its explosion on film. That way no one would have doubted that the Soviet Union was capable of landing on the surface of the moon. But the idea was rejected as physicists decided the flash would be so short lived because of the lack of an atmosphere on the moon that it might not register on film.

The Soviets, of course, sent cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into space in 1961. The American Apollo program followed, securing major PR and technological victories. And despite the nuclear sabre rattling, no lunar landscapes were harmed.

Soviet headgear. Adam Jones/ Flickr photo

Soviet headgear. Adam Jones/ Flickr photo

Thankfully the tests on the moon were ?never? performed because of the?signing of the?Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty?in 1963 and the?Outer Space Treaty?in 1967. These treaties prevented future exploration of the concept of detonating?nuclear devices on Earths moon.

We have to remember that NASA?s?Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite?(LCROSS) mission was launched in 2009 and with it, we saw the release of the ?Centaur??kinetic energy?impactor, something that many today consider as a nuclear weapon that was unleashed on the surface of the moon.

The Pentagon has yet to comment on the old Cold War moon nuking plans and many of the reports written at the time have since been destroyed.

Had Project A119 been executed, it would have fundamentally altered the direction of the Space Race. Space exploration, while still in its infancy, would have taken on a distinctly militaristic bent. Certainly, technology developed for space exploration was used for military purposes, and vice versa, but space technology was not made for explicitly military purposes. Had the US detonated a nuke on the moon though, it would have sent clear signals that the militarization of space was an American priority, and the Soviets would have responded in kind. A race to build bigger and badder?space based weapons systems?might have ensued, and the Cold War might have looked a lot different and a lot more dangerous.

Luckily, both sides came to their senses. Nuking the moon is a pretty stupid idea when you take a few minutes to think about it, after all. There?s a reason it was only considered for a year before being scrapped. Project A119 is little more than a bizarre footnote in the history of the Cold War.

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A Study of Lunar Research Flights, Vol. 1