There’s a story making the rounds this week concerning an alleged plot cooked up by the United States in the 1950s to detonate a nuclear bomb on the surface of the Moon, creating a “flash” visible from Earth that would intimidate the Soviet Union.
The secret plan was innocuously dubbed “A Study of Lunar Research Flights” but also known as Project A119, according to physicist Leonard Reiffel, whom reports say was involved in the project.
All of that is fairly believable, even if the Pentagon obviously never carried out Project A119—which was reportedly initiated in 1957 after the U.S.S.R. launched Sputnik and also involved the famous astronomer and author Carl Sagan.
What’s preposterous are some of the breathless media reports stemming from a decade-old Associated Press interview with Reiffel. Littering Google News on Wednesday were headlines screaming some variation of “U.S. Planned to Blow Up the Moon!” — which to be perfectly blunt, no it didn’t.
Those headlines are misleading because they give the impression that the architects of Project A119 were trying to literally blow the Moon to smithereens. It’s crazy enough that there was a plan to detonate an atom bomb on the Moon without morphing the story into Star Wars.
Hey, I have no doubt that the Pentagon was full of twitchy, bomb-em-all-to-hell types at the height of the Cold War. But are we really supposed to believe that the military brass of that era was ignorant enough to think it was even possible to literally “blow up” an object 238,000 miles from Earth with a mass of 7.3477 × 1022 kilograms?
With a single, Hiroshima-class atom bomb, no less? Apparently, the Project A119 scientists quickly ruled out using a more destructive hydrogen bomb because it would have been too heavy for the rocket they planned on using.
Was Slim Pickens going to straddle the missile, hooting and hollering as he rode the bomb all the way to the lunar surface? What other secret plans did the U.S. have on the table during the Cold War? Drilling a hole to Moscow through the center of the Earth for a sneak attack? Blotting out the stars from the sky with a giant eraser?
Look, it’s fun to laugh at some of the, ahem, lunacy of the Cold War era, and chilling to ponder how close to the brink of a nuclear exchange we likely came on several occasions. But a story like Project A119 really doesn’t need any more sensationalism than it’s already got, no matter how many clicks you’re trying to attract.