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United States planned to bomb moon in 1950s

5:59 PM, Nov 28, 2012   |    comments
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By Brian Todd

(CNN) - War makes for strange plans. We have new details of a secret Cold War plot to set off an atomic bomb on the moon.

Just think of what a nuclear explosion would look like up there. The U.S. government once considered it.

CNN has documents, and interviewed the leader of a once-secret Air Force project innocuously titled "A Study of Lunar Research Flights," with the just-as-lowbrow nickname, "Project A-119."

Was it really true?

"To evaluate the value of putting a small, I emphasize small in this world anyhow, nuclear explosion on the moon," said physicist Leonard Reiffel.

Reiffel, now 85-years-old, led the project in 1958. It was the height of the Cold War. America and the Soviet Union were in a nuclear arms race.

The Soviets had just launched the world's first satellite, "Sputnik," and were ahead in the space race.

U.S. officials needed a big splash.

"People were worried very much by Gargarin and Sputnik and the very great accomplishments of the Soviet Union in those days, and in comparison, the United States was feared to be looking puny. So this was a concept to sort of reassure people that the United States could maintain a mutually-assured deterrence, and therefore avoid any huge conflagration on the Earth," said Reiffel.

According to his now-declassified report on the project, team leaders also thought they could get information "concerning the capability of nuclear weapons for space warfare."

Reiffel says the plan called for an intercontinental ballistic missile to be launched from an undisclosed location, travel 240,000 miles to the moon, and detonate on impact.

Various news reports say they considered using a bomb the same size as the one dropped on Hiroshima, but Reiffel now says he wasn't in on the discussions.

Could the blast, as some news reports suggest, have actually "blown up" the moon?

"Absolutely not. It would have been microscopic, so to speak. It would have left a crater that would have been I think essentially invisible from Earth, even with a good telescope," said Reiffel.

He had some brilliant minds on his team. One of them was an up-and-coming graduate student named Carl Sagan, who went on to become one of the world's most renowned astronomers.

"We brought him on to look at the propagation of a hypothetical cloud," said Reiffel.

Later on, Reiffel says Sagan violated security when he mentioned the still-classified project on a job application.

His widow said she's not sure if Sagan ever did that, but if he did, it wasn't intentional.

By 1959, Project A-119 was drawing more concern than excitement, and was abandoned.

"We didn't want to clutter up the natural radioactivities of the moon with additional bits of radioactivity from the Earth," said Reiffel.

CNN contacted the Air Force but it wouldn't comment on the project.

CNN

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