In 1958, the United States Air Force launched Project A119, also known as “A Study of Lunar Research Flights.” While the US would not visit the moon with a manned mission for eleven more years, this project involved sending something quite different to the lunar surface: a nuclear missile.
As the United States and the Soviet Union competed for military supremacy, space became one of the most contested venues for new technology. Just one year prior, the Soviet Union had claimed the first victory in this thinly veiled pursuit of the ultimate high ground when they successfully orbited Sputnik 1. The United States responded by redoubling their efforts, allowing the Air Force and the newly founded civilian space agency, NASA, to pursue different possibilities for this new frontier. NASA began work on the Gemini missions, which would make history and lead to the Apollo missions that landed us on the moon. Some in the Air Force, however, decided to go a less ambiguous path in their pursuit of demonstrating the ties between American technology and its military might. Their plan was not only to detonate a nuclear bomb on the surface of the moon, but to detonate one that was big enough to be seen from Earth.
“People were worried very much by (first human in space Soviet cosmonaut Yuri) Gagarin and Sputnik and the very great accomplishments of the Soviet Union in those days, and in comparison, the United States was feared to be looking puny. So this was a concept to sort of reassure people who the United States could maintain a mutually assured deterrence, and therefore avoid any huge conflagration on the Earth,” physicist Leonard Reiffel, who led the project, told CNN in a 2012 interview.
At the time, Reiffel wrote in his report about the project that, “The motivation for such a detonation is clearly threefold: scientific, military and political.”