Scorched Moon: Secret Project A119

In today’s world, it is hard to realize how frightened Americans were at the news of Sputnik orbiting the Earth. Part of it was a fear of what a rival nation could do if they could fly over your country with impunity. Part of it was simply fear generated by propaganda. While America won the race to the moon, that wasn’t clear in the 1950s. The Soviet Union was ahead in the ability to deliver bombs using planes and missiles. They launched Sputnik on a modified ICBM, while American attempts to do the same failed spectacularly. The Air Force wanted ideas about how to respond to Sputnik, and one of the most disturbing ones was project A119, a project we were reminded of recently by a BBC post.

In all fairness, the Soviets had an almost identical plan, code-named E4. Fortunately, both sides eventually realized these plans weren’t a good idea. Oh, did we forget to mention that A119 and E4 were plans to detonate a nuclear device on the moon?

The official title was “A Study of Lunar Research Flights, Volume 1” which sounds benign enough. But the idea was to drop a hydrogen bomb at the terminator line on the moon, presumably to scare the Soviets and prevent them from planning military bases on the lunar surface. Well, ostensibly, it was for science, but it is hard to imagine what science would be worth irradiating the moon with a nuclear device.

The abstract reads:

Nuclear detonations in the vicinity of the the moon are considered in this report along with scientific information which might be obtained frorn such explosions. The military aspect is aided by investigation of space environment, detection of nuclear device testing, and capability of weapons in space.

A study was conducted of various theories of the moon’s structure and origin, and a description of the probable nature of the lunar surface is given. The areas discussed In some detail are optical lunar studies, seismic observations, lunar surface and magnetic fields, plasma and magnetic field effects, and organic matter on the moon.

We aren’t sure what the organic matter part was about. Like many cold war things, this makes no sense knowing what we know now. Keep in mind, too, that back then, people also were proposing other uses for nuclear bombs, such as working with natural gas and working on excavation projects. The moon has been the topic of more than one cloak-and-dagger escapade.

35 thoughts on “Scorched Moon: Secret Project A119

  1. Nuking the moon may be a legitimate way off fusing the regolith for landing pads if done at a suitable altitude to melt but not vaporise it. The recent starship launch demonstrated that taking off and landing on the dusty moon with large ships my otherwise be problematic.

    1. The starship moon lander itself has planned lunar landing engines way higher up on the fuselage to combat this problem. Also, since gravity on the moon is waaaay lower, that amount of thrust won’t be needed. Those two things combined make for enough ways for even larger ships to land safely without blasting the lunar surface to bits.
      Now, for Mars, that’s another story… The first Starship that lands there, if they’d do it like they do now, would probably be damaged and not able to return. Or it’d have to be a humanless Starship with robots that build the landing pad.

      1. I’d like to read a paper on the moon’s regolith and its ability to sustain interactions with larger rocket engines. Fusing the moon’s surface would have the added benefit of reducing dust in the area of the base and its habitats.

        1. I wonder what affect the absence of an atmosphere has on this interaction?
          I will almost certainly make the affects lower, or higher, or leave them the same. It’s one of those things where I can think of plausible explanations for either result.
          I think that the density of rocket exhaust is probably so high that 1atm or 0 atm of ambient air makes no difference.

  2. “and one of the most disturbing ones was project A119”

    Why the hyperbole? Of all the places to nuke, the moon is one of the LEAST disturbing. There’s no one living there, and it’s not like the fallout can get you from there. Sure, there’s the fact that you’re actually launching a nuke in a rocket, so it could be mistaken for the start of war, but presumably they had some way of proving that the manned missions weren’t disguised ICBM launches.

    If you want something that’s *actually* scary, look at Project Pluto

        1. “Nuking the moon is 100% fine”? ehh in what sense? In a lets see what happens when I put this hamster in a microwave and stick it on for 5 minutes? Or in a lets fire a tesla into space as a pointless advertisement. Regardless of what sense that statement was made in, it had consequences and would still now.

          1. “In a lets see what happens when I put this hamster in a microwave and stick it on for 5 minutes?”

            “Pop goes the weasel!”
            -Robin Williams

    1. Right? How is that bad? Nuke the moon, who cares. It’s a vast, irradiated wasteland far away from anything.
      Of all the uses of nukes, space travel is by far the most exciting. I really wish we didn’t get paranoid right at the cusp of the best use of this technology. I mean really? We arm up a massive swarm of thousands of H-bombs aimed at every city on Earth, blow up Japan a couple times, but when it comes to propelling spacecraft to other planets (chemical propulsion is kind of a joke when it comes to manned interplanetary) or do experiments on the moon we suddenly get cold feet?
      Obligatory Atomic Rockets plug:

    2. In 2023, and probably from the mid ’70s at least we could say. “It wouldn’t have done much” but based on only 100% cast iron solid facts we had about the moon prior to 1960, it was an irresponsible thing to do, because we had so few 100% solid facts. Lots of unknown unknowns at the time, still a lot of known unknowns under topics like “If we spread the mass of the moon round it’s orbit accidentally, would that cause a domino effect on Earth’s biome such that the oceans are dead in a couple of decades?” (There’s definitely a number of marine species that rely on tidal zones for reproduction and those whose reproduction is triggered by moon phases, so even changing albedo for a few years could have been damaging.) So being only 99% certain you wouldn’t do that, was not enough compared to the 1/100 chance of planet altering consequences if you did. “”Maybe stuff like that happened before when large meteors hit, and Earth still has life”” Maybe it did, and Earth had different life, like one of the mass extinctions they’re still not sure about cause of.

      I bet if you were locked in a room with 100 household objects and told, “One of these might be an IED, we’ll let you out when you’ve smacked them all with a hammer to check” … you’d get real scientific about examining every object carefully before you smacked it with a hammer. Such is true of the moon, we’re gravitationally locked into a twin planet system with it, smacking it with a hammer without examining it very carefully first was unwise.

      1. β€œIf we spread the mass of the moon round it’s orbit accidentally”

        You are kidding right?
        Anyone know how to calculate how much energy that would take?
        I’m thinking that if you can do that you might as well just snap your fingers and make the moon habitable instead. Sounds about as believable.

    3. My grandfather worked at jackass flats, Nevada, on the NERVA program and witnessed Pluto testing while there. He said you could hear it but they never saw it.

    1. Yes, and don’t forget that it makes it go fast enough to get to a new solar system every week! If you have any old Craftsman staplers… well… just sayin’

    2. Funny discovery I made a week ago – join me on going on a tangent.

      While doing a small walk down memory lane and reading up on Space 1999 (aka. Mondbasis Alpha 1) I discovered that the German version of the series used a disco version of the Star Wars Theme by Meco in one of their episodes.

      Playing the music on my desktop on Spotify I couldn’t stop smiling when I saw that the progress indicator had turned into a light saber that was even modulating its glow when I moved the mouse over it (see screenshot). That’s a nice nugget built into Spotify obviously by someone who is a Star Wars fan.

      Ah – and by the way, while the disco version of the Star Wars theme is certainly a nice 70s disco dance floor piece, the “Other Galactic Funk” is a bit more hard core funky stuff – which is right up my alley.

  3. Considering the moon has a surface area 4 times that of United States and no atmosphere or wind currents to carry radioactive material, I highly doubt a nuclear explosion would have “irradiated the moon”. A small city-sized area, maybe, but easily avoided during future explorations.

    About organic matter, there are organic molecules everywhere in space, including asteroids, comets, etc.

    1. Not to mention it’s already bathed in radiation and bombarded by dubious radioactive metals constantly and has been for billions of years. I can’t believe that after all we’ve done with nukes, people would suddenly get precious about the moon.

  4. Anyone fascinated by stuff like this I can recommend “Nuking the Moon: And Other Intelligence Schemes and Military Plots Best Left on the Drawing Board” by Vince Houghton

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