Thanks to Magee for this suggestion.
History - Detonating a thermonuclear weapon on the moon? It sounds like the bizarro scheme of a deranged comic-book villain—not a project initiated inside the U.S. government.
But in 1958, as the Cold War space race was heating up, the U.S. Air Force launched just such an endeavor. Called Project A119, it harnessed the talents of some of America’s top scientists.
How could this happen?
Blame Sputnik, the beach-ball-sized satellite slung into space by the Soviet Union on October 4, 1957, which jolted U.S. officials and citizens alike into a state of high alert. As the two Cold War superpowers duked it out for postwar world dominance—framed by many as a titanic struggle between freedom and tyranny—the prospect of America’s arch-enemy gaining any measure of military-industrial advantage seemed chilling indeed.
So the United States needed to reclaim the narrative and prove to the world that it hadn’t lost the space race before it had even begun. Americans needed a reassuring sign that the Communists didn’t have a permanent upper hand—and that Sputnik wouldn’t soon be followed by Soviet nuclear missiles raining down onto U.S. soil.
America needed to show the world it was squarely in the race. And it needed something big—like nuking the moon. Never mind that the project had no practical purpose, no discernible national-security goals and its sole design was to show the world that the U.S.A. could do something ambitiously spectacular.
Sometime before May 1958, the U.S. Air Force asked the ARF team to investigate something truly out of the ordinary: the visibility and effects of a hypothetical nuclear explosion on the moon. The Air Force wanted to surprise the Soviets and the world: Hey, look at what we can do. We can blow the hell out of the moon.
But it wasn’t just fear that inspired physicists, chemists, biologists, astrophysicists and others to join university laboratories, private industries or government institutions working on aerospace and defense research. Many of these scientists were patriots. Some were WWII refugees who had seen tyranny firsthand—and barely escaped it. They, too, believed in what they were doing. The Cold War was a fight to the death—or at least for the future of the free world. These men and women had a skill set that was integral to national, and potentially global, security.
The program was ultimately scrapped—but the final reason is still unclear. All we have is speculation from multiple (knowledgeable) sources. Some say the Air Force canceled the program because of the potential danger to people on earth (in case the mission catastrophically failed the way so many of the early U.S. attempts at spaceflight sadly—and sometimes humorously—did). Others say the scientists were concerned about contaminating the moon with radioactive material, preventing any future mission to land a man on the surface (or even lunar colonization). Or it could be that the mission was scrapped out of a worry that the best-laid P.R. plans of the Air Force would be thwarted when the public saw this as an abhorrent defacement of the moon’s beauty instead of a demonstration of American scientific prowess.
Keep the suggestions coming. Keep them classy. No butt stuff.