- The US Air Force developed a top-secret plan to detonate
a nuclear bomb on the moon as a display of military might at the height
of the Cold War. In an exclusive interview with The Observer, Dr Leonard
Reiffel, 73, the physicist who fronted the project in the late Fifties
at the US military-backed Armour Research Foundation, revealed America's
extraordinary lunar plan.
- '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,' he said yesterday. '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
- 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,' said Reiffel.
- 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 there last year.
- Sagan, who died in 1996, was famous for popularising
science in the US and pioneering the study of potential life on other planets.
At the Armour Foundation in Chicago - now called the Illinois Institute
of Technology Research - he 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
- At the time scientists still believed there might be
microbial life on the moon and Sagan had suggested a nuclear explosion
might be used to detect organisms.
- Despite the highly classified nature of the work, Sagan's
biographer, Keay Davidson, discovered that he had disclosed details of
it when he applied for the prestigious Miller Institute graduate fellowship
- Yet, until today, the full nature of Project A119 has
never been revealed. Friends of Sagan believe he never would have wilfully
revealed classified information, but Reiffel has come forward to put the
'historical record straight'.
- Reiffel continued: 'It was well known that the existence
of this project was top secret. Had Sagan wanted to make any disclosures
to any party, as his boss at the time, I would have had to take forward
any such request and Air Force permission would have been extremely unlikely
in those very tense times.'
- In a letter to the science magazine Nature, Reiffel said:
'Fortunately for the future of lunar science, a one or two horse race to
detonate a nuclear explosion never occurred. But in my opinion Sagan breached
security in March, 1959.'
- Reiffel produced eight reports between May 1958 and January
1959 on the feasibility of the plan, all of which were destroyed in 1987
by the foundation. Reiffel would not discuss details of these reports,
believing they were still classified, but it was clear the conclusion was
that the explosion would have been visible from Earth
- He does not know why the plans were scrapped, but said:
'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: 'It
is obscene. 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".'
- Lowry believes Project A119 has relevance today with
the US proposing a missile defence system in space. He said: 'The US has
always wanted to militarise space and some of the fanciful ideas currently
being put forward will seem as incredible as the idea of nuking the moon
in the Fifties seems today.'
- A Pentagon spokesman would not confirm or deny the plans.
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