November 28th, 2012
07:06 PM ET

U.S. had plans to nuke the moon

By Brian Todd and Dugald McConnell

You could easily skip by it in an archive search: a project titled "A Study of Lunar Research Flights." Its nickname is even more low-brow: "Project A-119."

But the reality was much more explosive.

It was a top-secret plan, developed by the U.S. Air Force, to look at the possibility of detonating a nuclear device on the moon.

It was hatched in 1958 - a time when the United States and the Soviet Union were locked in a nuclear arms race that would last decades and drive the two superpowers to the verge of nuclear war. The Soviets had also just launched Sputnik 1, the world's first satellite. The U.S. was falling behind in the space race, and needed a big splash.

"People were worried very much by (first human in space Soviet cosmonaut Yuri) Gagarin and Sputnik and the very great accomplishments of the Soviet Union in those days, and in comparison, the United States was feared to be looking puny. So this was a concept to sort of reassure people that the United States could maintain a mutually-assured deterrence, and therefore avoid any huge conflagration on the Earth," said physicist Leonard Reiffel, who led the project.

Reiffel, now 85, spoke to CNN at his home in Chicago. A 1959 report Reiffel wrote on the project, declassified many years ago, was obtained online by CNN.

According to Reiffel's report, "The motivation for such a detonation is clearly threefold: scientific, military and political."

The military considerations were frightening. The report said a nuclear detonation on the moon could yield information "...concerning the capability of nuclear weapons for space warfare." Reiffel said that in military circles at the time, there was "discussion of the moon as military high ground."

That included talk of having nuclear launch sites on the moon, he said. The thinking, according to Reiffel, was that if the Soviets hit the United States with nuclear weapons first and wiped out the U.S. ability to strike back, the U.S. could launch warheads from the moon.

"These are horrendous concepts," Reiffel said, "and they are hopefully going to remain in the realm of science fiction for the rest of eternity."

The basic plan, Reiffel explained, was for an intercontinental ballistic missile to be launched from an undisclosed location, travel some 240,000 miles to the moon, and detonate on impact. Various news reports since 1958 have said project leaders considered using an atom bomb the same size as "Little Boy," the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, near the end of World War II.

Reiffel, who was cited for that information in those reports, now says he wasn't in on those discussions.

Contrary to some reports, Reiffel told CNN, the device would not have "blown up" the moon. "Absolutely not. It would have been microscopic, so to speak. It would have been, I think, essentially invisible from the Earth, even with a good telescope."

Reiffel had some brilliant minds on his team. One of them was an up-and-coming graduate student named Carl Sagan. Sagan went on to become one of the world's most renowned astronomers, creating the book and popular TV series "Cosmos."

But after working on the moon program, Reiffel said, Sagan violated security when he mentioned the still-classified project on a job application. "He did formally break the classification status of the project", Reiffel said of Sagan, who subsequently died in 1996.

Sagan's widow, Ann Druyan, told CNN she's not sure if Sagan ever broke the classification, but if he did, she said, it wasn't intentional. "I can't imagine he would have done that knowingly," Druyan said.

By 1959, Project A-119 was drawing more concern than excitement.

"We didn't want to clutter up the natural radioactivities of the moon with additional bits of radioactivity from the Earth," Reiffel said. The project was abandoned.

Project planners also weren't sure of the reliability of the weapons, and feared the public backlash in the U.S. would be significant," Reiffel said.

"It disappeared in the files of the Pentagon", he said of the project. "They come up with what I believe was the right answer."

Contacted by CNN, the Air Force would not comment on Project A-119.

Filed under: Security Brief
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    This is the first time I've posted something like this, but I feel that misinformation is running rampant here. My father's career was in inertial guidance and navigation systems and celestial navigation. My education started with my Dad 'bunny sucking' in the back seat of an F-104 over White Sands Missile Base chasing God knows what. (Actually, I know. But it's for another day.) He was intimately involved in all of the Gemini missions as a CAPCOM and engineer. He was also involved in many missile guidance systems from JPL, Lockheed, NASA, and the cruise missile systems (Boeing) among others. Before his death in 2000, he made it clear that his only regret was his involvement in PLACING tactical nuclear missile launchers on the Moon. While the Government would like us all to believe the concept was 'scrapped', it was not. I have tried to obtain un-edited (uncensored) photos of the moon in a specific location with no luck. NASA and/or the Govt. 'scrubs' all photos before release to the public. NASA's discussion of detonating a nuclear device on the Moon was a convenient cover for self destruction, should the need arise. Over the years, other countries have indicated a desire to place satellites and rovers on or over the Moon, placing the U.S. in a potentially compromising situation. They are and/or were there. . I respect all the opinions and people posting here. I mean no disrespect or offense. But you didn't see the look in my father's eyes when he told me about it. He was a scientist and engineer, and was but one of thousands of people involved in the early space programs and missile defense systems. Before the FOIA allows the release of this information, there will be a new crater on the Moon. Think what you want, or what makes you feel better. This is just the 'tip' of the proverbial iceberg. Makes me feel different every time I look up at a full Moon. Well, there you have it.

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    what would the airforce comment about 54 years later? Essentially everyone reponsible of working in that project is already dead or retired.

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      This article doesn't mention that in 2010 they crashed a nuke into the moon and 2011 crashed a rocket and 2013 crashed a satellite ...i would like to know what they are destroying and why....

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        The destruction would have been local, just another small crater. But the insinuation that the event would not have been visible from earth even with a telescope it demonstably wrong. As evidenced by the small meteroid that was recorded impacting the moon in the following link. The rock stated as being around 880 pounds, hit with the energy of perhaps 15 tons of tnt. The observed fireball or flash was visible for eight seconds. The impactor was estimated to be traveling around 37,000 m.p.h. or about 10 miles per second. This are known or measured values. Additionally, the flash was momentarily brighter than the north star, and visible of course to anyone who happened to be looking at it. So that fact negates the contention of the writer above in the article. But just to see how really wrong that statement is, consider this. The measured energy of the little asteroid was around 15 tons of tnt. It left a crater about 130 in diameter, a good sized hole to be sure. Many explosions this size are routine now on earth, although still a sight to behold, and feel. The energy of the :little boy" uranium bomb exploded over Hiroshima was rated around 16 KILOTONS of energy, over at least a thousand times more energy. The brightness would be so much more than the little asteroid as to be laughable in comparison. The temperature when the uranium core is imploded is as the temperature of the bomb at detonation is in the MILLIONS of degrees, as compared to the asteroids tens of thousands, impressive as that is, thirty thousand degree temperature fireball that boils all the rock is brighter than an elecrric arc welder, which if you have ever observed casually from afar without a welding mask or glasses from perhaps a quarter mile away at construction sites or such, is still the brightest thing anyone has ever seen. And visualize that same center of brightness several thousand times brighter, because that is what the n bomb is. It is so bright the visual spectrum goes completely up to ultra violent and continues to x rays and gamma rays, the most energetic of all electromagnetic radiation. The asteroid gets to ultra violet only. And the fireball was sustained with the little asteroid for eight full seconds, as the rock and impact site was boiled and spread out in a spherical or some variation thereof and expanded creating the crater and blowing impacta and ejecta away, and remained hot enough to glow for eight seconds as it cooled off by expansion and conduction with the cold surface of the moon, and by radiation into the vacuum of space. So, a full eight seconds by the little asteroid that could. Multiply those effects by thousands or ten thousands. The "little boy completely destroyed everything within a 2.2 miles radius, It is estimated that it would have made a crater 1200 feet in diameter if exploded direction on, near, or under the surface. The ejecta would have been spread in a radiating outward pattern as witnessed by the craters already there, many of that size do have spoke ejecta characteristics, some don't. So, at least the musings or opinions that the event would have not been visible even with a telescope is ludricrous. Writers of these articles should at least check facts sometimes or even just ask someone that knows, instead of putting forth misinformation. The topics are good, I commend them for the doing of the articles, but there is always some glaring misinformation or agenda driven conclusion that really irks me. If I know these things as a layman, surely a science writer or the scientist themselves should, and they either dont or knowlingly wish to mislead people, or further some political or social agenda. In this case I assume they are just ripping on our Military for having the temerity to blow up an evil atomic bomb on the pristine and adored moon or something. But of course, a nuclear detonation of that size would have been a really impressive sight, a symbol of american power and might, and a real deterrent to anyone that didn't have the capability or guts, knowledge and resources to do it. The fireball if scaled up based on the known little asteroid that coulds fireball would have been a thousand times brighter, at least a thousand times bigger, and lasted a thousand times as long. eight thousand seconds is a long time, even if it only lasted a hundred times as long it still would have been a spectacle.

        September 7, 2014 at 11:08 am |
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      September 7, 2014 at 12:07 am | Reply
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