Did you know that the United States Air Force had a completely different plan for the moon originally as opposed to the actual going to the moon that took place? The United States Air Force had decided to Nuke the Moon – Project A119 – and was going with the idea that a large mushroom cloud would be sufficient to instill fear into the hearts of all nations while declaring the military might of the US.
Let’s take a trip down the memory lane to understand the origins of Project A119, shall we? The year is 1957, and the Soviet Union has managed to take the world by surprise by launching the first-ever artificial satellite into the orbit – the Sputnik. This is a time when the US rocketeers are still trying to figure out the answers to the complexities of launching systems. The very first US attempt resulted in the rocket exploding on the launch pad, and the press had a field day with the event calling it kaputnik, flopnik, puffnik, and stayputnik.
Long story short, the Soviets were winning the space race, and the US was desperately looking for means that would enable it to boost its confidence. This led to the US focusing on doing what they knew best and executed in the best possible manner as well; creating nuclear weapons and blowing them up. The United States Air Force came up with the idea of sending an atomic bomb to the moon and detonating it so that the whole world could witness it and thus Project A119 came into being.
Almost right away, a team of scientists and physicists was assembled, and work began to study the visibility of the explosion from the Earth since that was the primary objective. Another factor that had to be considered, and answered was if the Project A119 cause damage to the lunar environment? It was decided that the explosion would have to be placed in the region of twilight so that the dust cloud from the explosion would be illuminated by the sun, thus making it visible from Earth. The famous author, Carl Saga, who was a doctoral student at that time and was working under the astronomer Gerard Kuiper was also part of the team and had to come up with a mathematical model of the expansion of the dust cloud explosion in the space around the moon.
Project A119 was going to be using a hydrogen bomb initially but then switched to a lower yield of 1.7-ton bomb owing to the weight of the hydrogen bomb. Work on Project A119 continued up until January 1959 when it was abandoned, and the project was classified while making sure that all participants were vowed to secrecy. The existence of Project A119 remained a secret up until the mid-1990s. Writer Keay Davidson discovered the story while carrying out research on the life of Carl Sagan for a biography. Apparently, Sagan had given details of the project and was later on accused of violation of national security as well when he was applying for an academic scholarship at the University of California in 1959.
Physicist Leonard Reiffel, who was heading the study, broke his anonymity and spoke to the process after Carl Sagan’s biography had been published. Leonard said, ‘As these things go, this was small. It was less than a year and never got to the point of operational planning. We showed what some of the effects might be. But the real argument we made, and others made behind closed doors, was that there was no point in ruining the pristine environment of the moon. There were other ways to impress the public that we were not about to be overwhelmed by the Russians. Thankfully, the thinking changed. I am horrified that such a gesture to sway public opinion was ever considered.’
Dr. David Lowry, a British nuclear historian, said, ‘To think that the first contact human beings would have had with another world would have been to explode a nuclear bomb. Had they gone ahead, we would never have had the romantic image of Neil Armstrong taking one giant step for mankind.’