I was very interested to read on Monday Tom Leonard’s fascinating article on the new book comprising a compilation of bizarre discoveries of US military ideas during the Cold War, including the extraordinary Pentagon plans to “nuke the moon.”(Mail, 22 June)
As a nuclear historian, I first came across this barely believable tale twenty years ago, and worked on it with investigative journalist, Antony Barnett, who now presents Dispatches on Channel Four.( “US planned one big nuclear blast for mankind,” Observer, 14 May 2000 ; www.theguardian.com/science/2000/may/14/spaceexploration.theobserver)
Dr Leonard Reiffel, the American physicist who led the so-called ‘Project 119’ at the US military-backed Armour Research Foundation, had been approached by senior US Air Force officers in 1958, who asked him to 'fast-track' the project, revealed to Barnett that “It was clear the main aim of the proposed detonation was a PR exercise and a show of one-upmanship. The Air Force wanted a mushroom cloud so large it would be visible on earth.”
He said the explosion would “obviously be best on the dark side of the moon and the theory was that if the bomb exploded on the edge of the moon, the mushroom cloud would be illuminated by the sun.”
But, he cautioned : “I made it clear at the time there would be a huge cost to science of destroying a pristine lunar environment, but the US Air Force were mainly concerned about how the nuclear explosion would play on earth. “ .
The Armour Foundation in Chicago - now called the Illinois Institute of Technology Research - hired the famed late astronomer Carl Sagan to do mathematical modelling on the expansion of an exploding dust cloud in the space around the moon, to assess the potential visibility of such an atomic mushroom cloud from the Earth.
In fact, despite the highly classified nature of the work, Sagan's biographer, Keay Davidson, discovered that he had disclosed details of it when he applied for the prestigious Miller Institute graduate fellowship to Berkeley.
In a letter to the internationally respected science magazine Nature, Reiffel wrote: “Fortunately for the future of lunar science, a one or two horse race to detonate a nuclear explosion never occurred. But in my opinion Sagan breached security in March, 1959.”
As research progressed in secret, Reiffel produced eight reports between May 1958 and January 1959 on the feasibility of the plan, all of which were sadly destroyed in 1987 by the Armour foundation.
As I commented at the time twenty years ago: “It is obscene. To think that the first contact human beings would have had with another world would have been to explode a nuclear bomb. Had they gone ahead, we would never have had the romantic image of Neil Armstrong taking ‘one giant step for mankind’.”