When the Air Force Wanted to Nuke the Moon
The American reaction to Sputnik was diverse. Laymen and aerospace professionals alike were divided; some were unthreatened by the Soviet feat while others were fearful, eager to see national programs fast tracked to match the adversary in the new realm of space.
United States Air Force Physicist Leonard Reiffel had a more drastic reaction. In 1958, he published a report that proposed nuking the moon.
The motivation for detonating a nuclear device, Reiffel wrote, “is clearly threefold: scientific, military and political.” The report, innocuously titled A Study of Lunar Research Flights, focuses almost exclusively on the scientific benefits from such a mission.
Reiffel envisioned soft landing three identical scientific instrument packages carrying seismometers and radiation detectors at random on the visible face of the moon. These in situ stations would complement optical and spectroscopic observations from ground-based observatories and high altitude telescopes hoisted by balloons. Studying the nuclear reaction would teach scientists about our satellite’s environment and history, knowledge that would ultimately help us understand the Earth.
But it’s the military aspect of this proposal that’s really interesting.
The Nazis had explored piloted space planes that could skip off the atmosphere to drop bombs on America; the United States Air Force considered adopting this technology with the Dyna-Soar. Throughout the 1950s, unmanned missiles overtook piloted bombers as they became increasingly sophisticated and their range improved.
But space-based military platforms became the sought after military high ground after Sputnik. With a satellite passing over the United States every 90 minutes, the worry was that the enemy could very precisely drop a bomb from orbit. Militarizing space thus became a feature in most long-range space plans in America. The idea was that whoever controlled the skies controlled the world.
Detonating a nuke on the moon would give American scientists a first hand look at the realities of nuclear weapons in space — what to expect from those detonated by either the United States or by the Soviet Union. This experiment would teach scientists how to detect nuclear material in space. It would give them a clearer understanding of how capable and effective nuclear weapons would be in space, going a long way to determine whether nuclear warfare would even be feasible in space.
Lessons in warfare are only part of the military benefits; political motivations and gain were an equally important part of this proposal. Though he doesn’t go into extensive detail, Reiffel does reference the positive position to be gained by the nation that could detonate a nuke in space, a feat he lauds as “a demonstration of advanced technological capability.” It would certainly show the Soviets that the R-7 rocket that had launched the innocuous Sputnik into orbit paled in comparison to America’s most advanced unmanned missiles.
Of course, it wouldn’t just be a win for the United States; if the world weren’t prepared for something as dramatic as a nuclear explosion in space the effects could be extremely negative and devastating for America’s popularity abroad.
Unfortunately, the meat of the military side of Reiffel’s proposal is missing. The details are in the second chapter, which directs the reader to Volume II of the report, which is unavailable to the public. Volume I is all about the science and makes no specific mention of the type or size of nuclear explosives Reiffel proposes detonating near the moon.
As we know, the project was abandoned and we explored the moon with peaceful programs. Though nuclear material was sent to the moon. Some Apollo surface experiments were powered by radioisotopic thermoelectric generators, or RTGs, the same power source that’s currently powering Curiosity’s trek across Mars. But the Apollo RTGs weren’t detonated in the name of science — or in the name of showing an adversary who’s boss.
Image credit: NASA