Episode 5 - Moon Nukes

Updated: Feb 6, 2020


On June 18, 2018, President Donald Trump directed the Pentagon to begin planning for a Space Force: a 6th independent military service branch to undertake missions and operations in the rapidly evolving space domain. The U.S. Space Force would be the first new military service in more than 70 years, following the establishment of the U.S. Air Force in 1947. Officials estimated the creation of a new service would cost $2 billion over five years, and require 15,000 personnel. Congress has yet to authorize the establishment of a U.S. Space Force.

During World War II, Germany was the world leader in rocket technology. German engineers and scientists developed the V-2 rocket near the end of the war that would devastate whole city blocks and Nazi Germany used them to bombard London until the Allied Forces captured the launch sites in northern France. After the end of World War II, German rocket scientists were recruited by both the United States and the Soviet Union to work on their own respective long-range intercontinental missiles. America recruited Wernher Von Braun, the creator of the V-2 missile, and brought him and his team to the United States.

In 1950, the Korean war began when the Soviet Union-backed North Korea invaded the pro-western South Korea. The outbreak of war in Korea combined with the fact that the Soviet Union had just tested it’s own atomic weapon caused tensions between the two countries to rise and the Cold War really begin. Both countries worked as hard as they could to pull ahead in the arms race to become the most powerful country in the world. Von Braun’s team worked hard to produce missiles with gradually increasing range, first the Redstone and then the Jupiter. Both the US and Soviet Union were close to creating a missile that could carry a nuclear weapon halfway around the world to strike their enemy.

In 1957, the UN announced a cooperative global effort to study the Earth’s environment. Both the United States and the Soviet Union announced that they could use their rockets to launch satellites into the Earth’s orbit as their contribution to the study. On October 4, 1957, a Soviet R-7 intercontinental ballistic missile launched the satellite “Sputnik” which is Russian for “traveler.” Sputnik was the world’s first man-made object to be placed into the Earth’s orbit. The launch of Sputnik was an unwelcome surprise to America. Americans had a hard time coping with the fact that the Soviets had beat us to such a monumental achievement. A month later, the Pittsburgh Press reported that “The latest rumor going the rounds is that the Russians plan to explode a rocket-borne H-bomb on the moon on or about November 7. If that’s true – look out! The rocket and its cargo of violence are more likely than not to boomerang.” It started to become more and more apparent that America’s missile capabilities were falling behind the Soviet’s and that made Americans very nervous.

In 1958, a few months after the launch of Sputnik, the United States launched its own satellite, Explorer I. That same year, President Dwight Eisenhower signed a public order creating the National Aeronautics and Space Administration or NASA, a federal agency dedicated to space exploration. America and the USSR were officially in a Space Race with each other, competing to become the superior power not only on Earth, but in space as well.

Shortly after the creation of NASA, officers from the Air Force approached one of NASA’s senior physicists, Dr. Leonard Reiffel, about what it would take to detonate a nuclear device on the Moon. Reiffel was very intrigued by the possibility and took this secret project on. In 1959, Reiffel summarized his findings in his report titled “A Study of Lunar Research Flights.” The report summarizes everything that scientists at the time knew about the moon, including it’s magnetic field and lack of atmosphere. Reiffel described the benefits of bombing the moon as not only important to the scientific community where they would finally be able to find out what the Moon was made of, but to politics as well. A mushroom cloud on the moon that was big enough to be seen from Earth would send a powerful message of strength to the Soviet Union and would restore American citizen’s trust in their governments abilities.

Reiffel came up with several ideas on how to deliver the bomb, make sure that the bomb was seen from Earth, and where it would explode on the moon. One idea was to attach flares to the rocket, so that humans could watch the rocket all the way from Earth to the Moon and then the rocket would explode on the edge of the dark side of the moon so that the mushroom cloud from the one-megaton bomb would have a dark backdrop and again could be easier seen with the naked eye. Reiffel also made sure to summarize what the effects of the bomb would be on both the moon and earth. The bomb would definitely vaporize part of the moon, cause earthquakes or I guess moonquakes, and a considerable amount of the radioactive material would be expelled into space. Worried about radioactive material coming back to Earth after the explosion, Reiffel had a young graduate student named Carl Sagan to calculate whether or not it would be a harmful amount and Sagan determined that it would be expected to be only a low amount.

Though Reiffel wasn’t too worried about radioactive ash being spewn into space or creating a huge man-made crater in the moon, he did have concerns of the rocket introducing the moon the hazardous organic or biological material from Earth. His report noted that “if such biological contamination of the moon occurred, it would represent an unparalleled scientific disaster, eliminating several possibly very fruitful approaches to such problems as the early history of the solar system, the chemical composition of matter in the remote past, the origin of life on earth, and the possibility of extraterrestrial life.”

Reiffel also shared his concerns of what would happen if the rocket launch failed. There could be human casualties if the rocket couldn’t make it to space, landed back on Earth, or even exploding still in the Earth’s atmosphere and causing radioactive debris to scatter over an enormous part of the world. It was concluded, that bombing the moon wasn’t worth it and the project was abandoned.

So America scraps it’s idea to blow up the moon. The Soviet Union then rubs salt in the wound by landing the first unmanned spacecraft on the moon, the Luna 2. America needed to do something big to regain the lead in the space race, and Project Horizon was born. The proposal for Project Horizon was orchestrated by Lieutenant General Arthur G. Trudeau, the US Army’s Chief of Research and Development, and it contained more than 400 pages explaining how America wasn’t just going to put a man in space, we were going to colonize the moon. In the proposal, there were maps of where the new colony would be placed on the moon and how the colony would be capable of producing its own oxygen and water while supply ships would bring the colonists the rest of their supplies. They would start with just 10 to 20 colonists, gradually expanding and eventually even having lunar nuclear power plants.

There were arguments that the colony would allow for better space exploration and furthering mankind with the development of new and better technology. But the main reason for a colony on the moon would be to claim ownership of the moon and use it for a whole variety of military purposes. The colony would actually be more of a military base. Some capabilities of having a military base on the moon would be using antennae dishes on the moon to bounce radio communications from one point of the Earth to another point on Earth, to use cameras and telescopes on the moon to spy on the Soviets and of course housing nuclear weapons aimed right at the Soviet Union that could be launched even if every other American nuclear arsenal on Earth had already been taken out.

The pentagon liked the idea of a moon military base and gave the project over to Wernher Von Braun, the rocket physicist from Germany, who then gave the project over to his German colleague Heinz-Hermann Koelle. Koelle assigned different pieces of the project to different military departments for them to study and then return their findings to him. The Army Ballistic Missile Agency would determine the types of rockets and space vehicles to be used, the Signals Corp would study the radio and communications needs, and the Corps of Engineers would determine the construction and maintenance for the buildings of the colony.

Koelle put all of the findings into a report titled “Project Horizon: A U.S. Army Study for the Establishment of a Lunar Military Post” and submitted it to the Pentagon in June 1959. The report starts off by emphasizing why it was so important to beat the Soviets in building a military outpost on the moon. The report states that “The political implications of our failure to be first in space are a matter of public record. This failure has reflected adversely on United States scientific and political leadership. To some extent we have recovered the loss. However, once having been second best in the eyes of the world's population, we are not now in a position to afford being second on any other major step in space .… The results of failure to first place man on an extra-terrestrial base will raise grave political questions and at the same time lower US prestige and influence. The Soviet Union has announced openly its intention that some of its citizens will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution (1967) on the moon. The US intelligence community agrees that the Soviet Union may accomplish a manned lunar landing at any time after 1965 …. Political, scientific, and security considerations indicate that it is imperative for the United States to establish a lunar outpost at the earliest practicable date …. From the viewpoint of national security, the primary implications of the feasibility of establishing a lunar outpost is the importance of being first.”

So like basically everything that has to do with the space race, the report is saying it’s important because America keeps coming up second to the soviet union so we should at least be first in living on the moon with nukes. The report then went on to say how this moon colony could be accomplished. The project would be modular, starting out small and then expanding out over time. Large liquid-hydrogen fueled rockets would deliver supplies and materials. After enough supplies had been delivered, two astronauts would land on the moon and begin construction.

Later manned launches would bring around 14 more astronauts to the moon colony. The astronauts would use explosives and a bulldozer/backhoe combo that was designed for space to create trenches for the pre-built units to be placed in. The units would then be sealed, pressurized, and buried in the moon’s soil to protect them from cosmic radiation and micrometeorites. Nuclear reactors would be used along with solar power to power the base. After it was all done, there would be several scientific laboratories, a recreation room, hospital unit, housing quarters, and a unit for growing food. Water, oxygen, and hydrogen would be provided by the ice that was already on the moon that would not only be used by the colonists to live, but to also potentially fuel rockets. The outpost would be fully inhabitable by 1966 and would require around 150 rocket launches. The colony would need 64 rockets a year to deliver them supplies and rotate astronauts in and out of the moon colony back to earth. The outpost would also slowly expand over the years as needed.

To protect the moon colony from Soviet attacks, the base would be surrounded by Claymore mines modified to poke holes in space suits and moon colonists would have small sub-kiloton nuclear weapons with a kill zone of 300 to 500 meters to use against Soviet vehicle attacks. A basic design for a space-gun was proposed that was basically a shotgun that could be fired in space. There would also be bomb shelters in case the Soviets launched a nuclear attack at the base.

Project Horizon also proposed a death ray for the base. The death ray would focus sun rays and ionizing radiation towards enemy targets.

The total cost of the initial outpost would be $700 million per year, or what would cost $6 billion today, but the report argued that it was worth it since America was already spending close to that on its nuclear missile program. The report stated that “These figures are a valid appraisal, and, while preliminary, they represent the best estimates of experienced, non-commercial, agencies of the government. Substantial funding in undeniably required for the establishment of a U.S. lunar outpost; however, the implications of the future importance of such an operation should be compared to the fact that the average annual f

unding required for Project Horizon would be less than two percent of the current annual defense budget.” The report concluded that the military base was possible and should be built.

However, President Eisenhower wasn’t interested in spending that much money on a lunar base that would mostly be used for scientific discovery and was worried that Americans would see it as a waste of American taxpayer dollars so Project Horizon was never implemented. In 1961, the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person to orbit Earth. A month later, President John F. Kennedy publicly stated that the U.S. would put a man on the moon before the end of the decade.

In 1967, the US and the Soviet Union entered the Outer Space Treaty, which prohibits weapons of mass destruction to be placed into orbit, on the moon, or any other physical body in space and on July 16, 1969, Apollo 11 launched with U.S. astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins. They landed on the moon on July 20 and Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon marking the moment by saying “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”


“This is the Story of How America Once Thought About Nuking the Moon” by Robin Andrews

The Unclassified Project Horizon Report by the United States Army article “The Space Race”

NASA’s website article “Brief History of Rockets”

“Hidden History: Project Horizon, the American Military Base on the Moon” by Lenny Flank

“That Time the U.S. Was Going to Build A Massive, Death Ray Equipped, Military Moon Base” by Daven Hiskey

“U.S. Reveals Secret Plans for ‘60s Moon Base” by Ben Brumfield


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