According to Reiffel’s report, “The motivation for such a detonation is clearly threefold: scientific, military and political.”
The military considerations were frightening. The report said a nuclear detonation on the moon could yield information “...concerning the capability of nuclear weapons for space warfare.” Reiffel said that in military circles at the time, there was “discussion of the moon as military high ground.”
That included talk of having nuclear launch sites on the moon, he said. The thinking, according to Reiffel, was that if the Soviets hit the United States with nuclear weapons first and wiped out the U.S. ability to strike back, the U.S. could launch warheads from the moon.
“These are horrendous concepts,” Reiffel said, “and they are hopefully going to remain in the realm of science fiction for the rest of eternity.”
The basic plan, Reiffel explained, was for an intercontinental ballistic missile to be launched from an undisclosed location, travel some 240,000 miles to the moon, and detonate on impact. Various news reports since 1958 have said project leaders considered using an atom bomb the same size as “Little Boy,” the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, near the end of World War II.
Reiffel, who was cited for that information in those reports, now says he wasn’t in on those discussions.
Contrary to some reports, Reiffel told CNN, the device would not have “blown up” the moon. “Absolutely not. It would have been microscopic, so to speak. It would have been, I think, essentially invisible from the Earth, even with a good telescope.”
Reiffel had some brilliant minds on his team. One of them was an up-and-coming graduate student named Carl Sagan. Sagan went on to become one of the world’s most renowned astronomers, creating the book and popular TV series “Cosmos.”
But after working on the moon program, Reiffel said, Sagan violated security when he mentioned the still-classified project on a job application. “He did formally break the classification status of the project”, Reiffel said of Sagan, who subsequently died in 1996.
Nuclear launch sites on the Moon? I don’t get it.
The average Earth-to-Moon distance is about 384,000 km. It would take a missile several days to travel that distance, providing plenty of time for defenses to target it. Surely a submarine-launched missile- or even a plain ol’ land-based ICBM- is a far more threatening weapon?
And, Starfish Prime (1962) provided plenty of information about what happens when a nuclear device detonates in near-space.
Our space program was initially just an off shoot of the cold war arms race. The first space missions were just putting people on top of ICBMs instead of warheads. I don’t think many people recognize that our space program wouldn’t have existed if it wasn’t for our nuclear program.
Our space program is clearly one of this country’s great achievements but it wasn’t an altruistic endeavor. The motivation for the space program was threefold: scientific, military and political.
The Space Race surely was an offspring of the Cold War arms race, although its origins lie in WWII.
Hitler hoped his V2 rocket missile weapons would deliver “annihilating destruction.” They didn’t, but it didn’t take that much imagination to realize that a long-range rocket carrying a nuclear weapon could accomplish what elided Hitler’s Germany.
The original Sputnik (1957) was launched using a minimally modified ICBM, as was America’s first astronaut in orbit, John Glenn (1962).
But military and space programs began to diverge after 1965 or so. The military never had a use for rockets as large as the Saturn V “moon rocket,” and as the nuclear weapons labs succeeded in building much smaller warheads, ICBMs became far smaller. For example, the Minuteman-I ICBM carried the W56 thermonuclear warhead (1.2MT), which weighed about 600 pounds- whereas a Saturn V could put over 100,000 pounds into low earth orbit.
Part of the context of the Cold War was a psychological and political battle for the allegiance of Third World nations. At the time, the principal attraction of Soviet-style communism in the Third World was believed to be the promise of rapid industrialization. Thus, demonstration of national technical prowess would have been used as justification for Space Race funding.
And then, the USA won the race, the USSR declared it had never been interested in sending anyone to the moon anyway (although this was not true) and much of the political support for this costly program evaporated.
I had a professor in college that retired from the Minuteman project and taught basic engineering and electricity classes. He was literally the smartest human I have ever met. he was so well read that he could discuss any one of a hundered topics intelligently. That included the history of rock and roll specifically Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon album. Which he listened to, ” because it seemed logical for a rocket scientist.” I wish that I could go back in time and have another discussion class with Dr. Jones.