In A Nutshell
At the height of the Cold War, the United States Air Force considered a plan to detonate a nuclear weapon on the surface of the moon. The project was deemed too risky and kept top secret for over 40 years, eventually coming to light in 2000, when former NASA executive Leonard Reiffel provided details of the plot.
The Whole Bushel
The Space Race was an important part of the Cold War, the two superpowers of the USSR and the USA competing to become the first to discover the mysteries of the universe. In 1957, the Soviets took a commanding lead when they put the Sputnik satellite in orbit around the Earth. Not to be outdone, the Americans developed Project A119, “A Study of Lunar Research Flights,” a gambit to explode a nuclear weapon on the surface of the Moon.
The US Air Force commissioned NASA to crunch the numbers, a research project helmed by executive Leonard Reiffel. Young astronomer Carl Sagan was also on the project. Indeed it was Sagan’s rather loose method of keeping national secrets that led to the public recognition of the project. While researching a biography on Sagan, a writer named Keay Davidson reviewed Sagan’s scholarship application for the University of California Berkley’s Miller Institute. Bizarrely enough, the late Sagan provided highly classified details about his involvement of the project. When the 1999 book Carl Sagan: A Life was published detailing the plan, Reiffel emerged to set the story straight, claiming that “the foremost intent was to impress the world with the prowess of the United States,” and “It was a PR device, without question, in the minds of the people from the Air Force.”
The bomb used would have been small, around the same size as the one used on Hiroshima. The explosion would have been visible from the surface of Earth and would have made a serious statement about the capability of the US. However, the risks involved in the launch, as well as the possibility of creating nuclear fallout on the Moon and halting the chances of manned lunar exploration, caused NASA and the Air Force to scrap their plans. Due to the Freedom of Information Act, the plans were eventually made public, though the Air Force denies any involvement with the ill-fated Project A119, even to this day.