Nationalism nearly killed the Man in the Moon

In 1957, during the frozen days of the Cold War, the Soviet Union responded to the United States’ declaration to send a satellite into space by beating them to it. Sputnik I launched in October 1957, a boost to Soviet pride. The Soviets then followed the Sputnik feat by being sending the first man, Yuri Gagarin, into orbit around the Earth in 1961 in the Vostok I vessel. These losses bruised American egos and served to lower national morale.

In 1958, President Eisenhower established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to provide for civilian-oriented space exploration and study, and of course, to beat the Soviets. The Space Race certainly increased tensions between the two nations, but also served as a time of great advancements, with impacts lasting to this day. Outside the obvious revelations of our universe, applications from NASA research are found in everything from ingestible toothpaste to audio equipment.

But not every idea was a good one. Project A119, or “A Study of Lunar Research Flights,” was a top-secret endeavor undertaken during the unsettling Soviet accomplishments in the late 1950s. Led by the United States Air Force and the Armour Research, the researchers had one goal: detonate an atomic bomb on the moon. The idea was that the detonation would be visible from Earth and result in increased American spirit.

Dr. Leonard Reiffel, lead physicist of the project, told The Observer in 2000 that the project essentially served as a PR stunt. There are earlier studies and writings concerned with similar ideas; however, the focus in these cases was scientific advancement. In Project A119, it was about showing the USSR who was king.

Dr. Reiffel and his team were based in Chicago, at what is now known as the Illinois Institute of Technology. Among his assistants was a young graduate student named Carl Sagan, who later became famous for his science writing and the 1980 television series Cosmos. While they at first considered a hydrogen bomb, The Los Angeles Times reported that due to the weight of the H-bomb, an atom bomb was proposed instead.

The group produced several reports from May 1958 to January 1959 exploring possible consequences and effects of various lighting scenarios on the resulting mushroom cloud visual.

The Guardian stated that Sagan proposed the idea that microbial life could be detected by such a blast, but the team felt strongly that to destroy the “pristine” environment of the moon simply for showmanship was wrong.

The program was eventually scrapped, despite the scientists’ belief that it could have been achieved. In interviews given since the release of project documents, Dr. Reiffel has stated that the technology existed to launch an atom bomb at the moon within two miles of its target. But it appears ethical concerns, as well as the bravado-soaked spirit of the launch, weighed heavily on the team. They were successful in convincing administrators that public outcry could be negative and that there were better ways to stick it to the Soviet Union.

The project remained a secret until the late 1990s, when science writer Keay Davidson stumbled upon details of the program while researching his Sagan biography. In Carl Sagan: A Life, Davidson claims the scientist breached national security by disclosing facts of the project in his application for a fellowship in 1959. This revelation led to increased interest in the classified project and the release of a portion of documents pertaining to it. It is believed that the Illinois Institute of Technology destroyed some program documentation in the 1980s.

In shooting sports, scattered rounds occur when a shooter focuses too much on the target and not enough on his front sights. In this case, it appears the tensions during the Cold War almost led the US government to do the same thing. Imagine looking up at the night sky knowing that our pursuit of nationalistic glory destroyed the Man in the Moon.


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