If you presumed that the reasoning behind such an act was “because we can”, you are absolutely correct. That is exactly why the U.S. wanted to do it, in order to one-up the Soviet Union, who were perceived as leading the space race at the time.
The project was labeled “A Study of Lunar Research Flights” or “Project A119″ and was developed by the U.S. Air Force in the late 1950s. It was felt that this would be a relatively easy thing to do and would also boost public perception of how the U.S. was doing in comparison to the Soviet Union in terms of the space race.
According to one of the leaders of the project, physicist Leonard Reiffel, hitting the moon with an intercontinental ballistic missile would have been relatively easy to accomplish, including hitting the target with an accuracy of about two miles. This accuracy would have been particularly important as the Air Force wanted the resulting explosion to be clearly visible from Earth. As such, it was proposed that the explosion happen on the border of the visible part of the moon, so that the resulting cloud would be clearly visible, being illuminated by the sun.
The project was eventually scrapped as it was felt that the public would not respond favorably to the U.S. dropping a nuclear bomb on the moon.
One can only imagine the conversation that would have had to take place to convince the Soviet Union of the U.S.’s peaceful intent with the launch of that missile:
- United States: “Hey Soviet Union, don’t worry about that intercontinental missile we just fired that has a nuclear warhead attached. I swear, it’s aimed at the moon.”
- Soviet Union: “Why would you shoot a nuclear missile at the moon?”
- United States: “…”
- Soviet Union: “???”
- United States: “You know… BOOM… but in space.”
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- A young Carl Sagan was one of the scientists hired by Reiffel for this project. Specifically, Sagan was hired to study how exactly the cloud would expand on the moon, so that they could make sure it would be clearly visible from Earth, which was the whole point of the project.
- Sagan felt that the project also had scientific merit in that the cloud itself could be closely examined for possible organic material.
- Sagan breached national security just one year after he was hired (1959) when he revealed aspects of the project when applying for the Berkeley Miller Institute graduate fellowship. Details of this were not brought to light until a biographer, Keay Davidson, uncovered this information when doing research for a biography on Carl Sagan after Sagan’s death in 1996.
- The Miller Research Fellowship is a program provided by Berkeley to help some of the world’s most promising young scientists launch their careers. Winners are given a three year appointment where they are mentored by Berkeley’s faculty and are allowed to use the university’s facilities for their research, among other benefits.
- Around 400 people have been made Miller Fellows since 1960 and there have been over 1000 scientists who have been supported through the program. Among this very prestigious group are six Fields Medalists and seven Nobel Prize winners.
- Carl Sagan was one of the first “Miller Fellows” inducted. His three year term began in 1960 when the Fellowship was created.
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