The Air Force, nuclear detonations and … the moon?


First came the flying saucers, and now another Air Force experiment has shed some light on a past space endeavor. Except this time, it was to be at the expense of the moon.

(Courtesy NASA)

According to this recent article from Discovery News, Air Force Physicist Leonard Reiffel published a report in 1958  that proposed “nuclear detonations in the vicinity of the moon.”

Amy Shira Teitel, the author of the Discovery News article, writes, “Reiffel envisioned soft landing three identical scientific instrument packages carrying seismometers and radiation detectors at random on the visible face of the moon. These in situ stations would complement optical and spectroscopic observations from ground-based observatories and high altitude telescopes hoisted by balloons. Studying the nuclear reaction would teach scientists about our satellite’s environment and history, knowledge that would ultimately help us understand the Earth.”

Teitel’s analysis further discusses how this wasn’t the only incident in which countries began flirting with the idea to “militarize from space.”

She writes:

“The Nazis had explored piloted space planes that could skip off the atmosphere to drop bombs on America; the United States Air Force considered adopting this technology with the Dyna-Soar. Throughout the 1950s, unmanned missiles overtook piloted bombers as they became increasingly sophisticated and their range improved.

“But space-based military platforms became the sought after military high ground after Sputnik. With a satellite passing over the United States every 90 minutes, the worry was that the enemy could very precisely drop a bomb from orbit. Militarizing space thus became a feature in most long-range space plans in America. The idea was that whoever controlled the skies controlled the world.”

Reiffel’s proposal had clear motivation: Testing nuclear weapons in space was essential to advance scientifically, politically and militarily.

But he never went further in his initial proposal to explain the type or size of nuclear explosives. The second chapter, as well as Volume II — currently unavailable to the public — supposedly holds that information.

Was the project abandoned? Teitel says most likely, considering we explored the moon with peaceful programs. But nuclear devices did make it to the moon — some Apollo surface experiments were powered by radioisotopic thermoelectric generators, or RTGs, the same power source that’s powering Curiosity’s trek across Mars.

As far as we know, nukes have yet to go boom in the night sky. But somewhere out there, someone may just be flirting with the idea once more.


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