Carl Sagan’s Biography Revealed A Bizarre Government Plot To Nuke The Moon

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During the Cold War era, the United States engaged in an intense rivalry with the Soviet Union. Both countries were obsessed with exerting dominance over the other, and one of the key areas of competition was in the nascent field of space travel. The conflict was so fierce that, in the late ’50s, the Air Force actually considered a bizarre plan akin to something out of a supervillain’s playbook.

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In the aftermath of World War II, the world’s two great superpowers came into conflict. The United States – a capitalistic society – battled the communist Soviet Union. The nations didn’t fight a traditional war, but rather tried to assert ideological and technological supremacy over the other by engaging in decades of nuclear arsenal development, espionage and counter-espionage.

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One of the main areas of competition between the two countries became known as the “space race.” Americans viewed searching the outer reaches of space as the next logical stage in their country’s tradition of exploration. However, it would be the Soviets who’d launch the first man-made satellite into Earth’s orbit.

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October 4, 1957, was the day a Soviet missile fired Sputnik 1 into the great unknown. To the Americans, the missile – an R-7 intercontinental ballistic model – was a sobering example of the Soviet military might. Theoretically, if the missile could send a satellite into space, what was to stop it from launching a nuclear warhead straight at the United States?

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Terrified of losing ground to its bitter enemy, the U.S. Army launched its own satellite the following year. Explorer 1’s creation was overseen by Wernher von Braun, the man who led the development of rocket technology in Nazi Germany. He was secretly brought to the U.S. after World War II as part of Operation Paperclip, along with roughly 1,600 other German scientists, technicians, and engineers.

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The National Aeronautics and Space Administration was then formed in 1958. A federal agency, its sole purpose was the exploration of space. NASA was also supplemented by two national security-focused space programs. The Air Force ran one, which was dedicated to militarizing space. The C.I.A., Air Force and the National Reconnaissance Office ran the other. This was given the codename of “Corona.” It compiled information on the Soviet Union through the clandestine use of satellites.

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The year 1959 saw the Soviet Union come out on top again when they launched Luna 2 and it hit the moon. This made it the first ever probe to do so. Two years later, on April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first human to reach our planet’s orbit. The Russian cosmonaut did it in a craft called the Vostok 1.

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The U.S. effort to send a man into space was initially run by the Air Force and the program was called Man In Space Soonest. However, in November 1958 the program was moved over to the newly-created NASA and given the name of Project Mercury. Engineers then designed a craft that was even lighter than Vostok.

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NASA first conducted test flights with chimpanzees and were planning to move on to tests with human astronauts. In fact, its final test flight with a primate was in March 1961. This meant that when the Soviet Union sent Gagarin into orbit that very next month, it beat the U.S. to the punch once again.

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The first American in space was Richard Shepard, who piloted the spacecraft dubbed Freedom 7 on May 5, 1961. His flight came less than a month after Gagarin’s, but the blow to American ego was severe. According to a 2004 biography, when he heard about Gagarin’s successful orbit, Shepard was furious. He reportedly smacked a table in frustration with such force that a NASA public relations expert was worried he’d fractured his hand.

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Forging ahead, President John F. Kennedy made a bold proclamation on May 25, 1961, in a speech before Congress. He said the U.S. should aim to land a man on the moon by the end of the ’60s. He admitted the Soviets were ahead of them in the race at that point but urged NASA to work hard to get to a place where it was leading space travel achievements.

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Less than nine months later, the U.S. sent a man into Earth’s orbit for the first time. On February 20, 1962, John Glenn piloted the Friendship 7 spacecraft and orbited Earth three times. Glenn had been a backup pilot for Shepard on the first two Project Mercury space flights. His successful orbit saw him become a national hero and personal friend of President Kennedy.

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NASA created the Apollo program in 1961, which was dedicated to achieving Kennedy’s objective of man walking on the moon. To accomplish the lofty aim, its budget was inflated a massive 500 percent between ’61 and ’64. The program was staffed by around 34,000 NASA workers and 375,000 university and industrial contractors.

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Unfortunately, January 27, 1967, became a dark day in the history of NASA when a tragic accident took the lives of three astronauts. Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Roger Chaffee and Ed White were inside the Apollo 1 command module conducting a rehearsal for an upcoming launch. They were plagued with problems from the outset.

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Firstly, the astronauts smelled a bad odor in their oxygen supply. Then, their communications system malfunctioned. And when it couldn’t be fixed, the rehearsal countdown was delayed. With the astronauts still onboard the module, a spark started a fire in the oxygen-rich environment. The blaze spread quickly and, unable to open the escape hatch door due to the pressure inside the craft, the three men perished.

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Following the Apollo 1 disaster, it would be a year and a half before NASA sent astronauts into orbit. During that time, comprehensive changes were made to the spacecraft, including a total redesign of the hatch door. Finally, in December 1968, Apollo 8 launched from NASA’s facility near Cape Canaveral, Florida. It became the first manned craft to orbit our moon.

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In the end, July 20, 1969, was the day that the U.S. arguably won the space race. That was the day that the Apollo 11 crew landed the Apollo Lunar Module codenamed Eagle on the surface of the moon. Six hours and 39 minutes later, astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the surface of the moon.

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Armstrong’s first steps were broadcast live on television throughout the world. His iconic descriptor of, “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” became one of the most famous phrases in history. NASA had realized President Kennedy’s goal of putting a man on the moon in the ’60s with over five months to spare.

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Intriguingly, historical record tends to subscribe to the idea that the American public was always enthusiastic about the space race. After all, television helped turn many of the astronauts into national heroes. However, while this was undoubtedly how some of the population thought, it perhaps wasn’t as widespread a belief as one may think.

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SPACE writer Jeremy Hsu wrote about “The myth of America’s love affair with the moon” in 2011. He revealed that, “Public opinion in favor of continuing human lunar exploration almost never rose above 50 percent during NASA’s Apollo program.” He added, “Americans often ranked spaceflight near the top of programs to be cut in the federal budget during the 1960s build-up toward the first moon landing.”

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Hsu continued, “The only time when more than half of the public believed Apollo was worth the expense came at the time of the Apollo 11 lunar landing in 1969.” But, he added, “Even then, only a lukewarm 53 percent of the public believed such a momentous historical occasion had been worth the cost.” So, why did the U.S. put so much money into the space race?

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Roger Launius of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum believed he knew the answer. As Hsu wrote, Launius thought, “Such findings suggest that the United States went to the moon not because the public demanded it, but because U.S. presidents and Congress believed it served a greater political purpose during the Cold War.” In truth, the rivalry with the Soviets caused the U.S. to consider a much more outlandish plan regarding the moon.

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In the 1990s Keay Davidson unearthed some shocking information when conducting research for an account of scientist Carl Sagan. He discovered that when Sagan was a University of Chicago graduate student in the late ’50s, he’d been part of a top secret Air Force project. In fact, he may have even violated national security by disclosing details of the project.

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An astronomer and astrophysicist, Sagan had risen to fame with the 1980 PBS series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. His aim with the show was to stimulate interest in science in the mainstream American populace, and he succeeded wildly. It became the most viewed show in U.S. public TV history, and Sagan became so famous that he landed a Time magazine cover story.

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Davidson found that Sagan gave details of a mysterious program named Project A119 in an application for a Miller Institute academic scholarship in 1959. He allegedly revealed the titles of two highly classified papers he’d contributed to as part of the project. To put it into context, all eight academic papers attached to the initiative were destroyed in 1987, such was their top secret nature.

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The public at large had no idea what Project A119 was. But Davidson’s allegation of Sagan breaching security prompted someone to speak publicly about the project for the first time. Physicist Leonard Reiffel – who was Sagan’s boss at the time of the project – revealed startling details of a forgotten piece of space race history.

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Speaking with The Observer in 2000, Reiffel said he was approached by the Air Force in 1958. It wanted him to head up a project to investigate the viability and potential effects of a nuclear explosion on the moon. Reiffel was part of the Armor Research Foundation, which was funded by the U.S. military and had been studying the environmental effects of nuclear explosions since 1949.

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It may seem unthinkable for such a project to be seriously considered. But at this point in time, the U.S. had fallen behind the Soviets. Sputnik 1 launching had surprised the Air Force, and the idea of its nemesis gaining any kind of advantage in the race to the moon terrified officials. The country wanted to make a statement to show it still held the upper hand.

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Why, though, would a respected scientist like Reiffel agree to take part in the study? Perhaps he was wary due to what happened to physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, the “father of the atomic bomb.” In 1949 he opposed the building of a new hydrogen bomb, due to his fear of a potential nuclear war fought with weapons he helped create. In response, the U.S. government fired and blacklisted him, all while accusing him of having communist ties.

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In essence, the U.S. military wanted to know if it was feasible for a nuclear blast on the moon to be visible from Earth. They wanted to shock the Soviet Union and the Earth at large with a display of power the likes of which few could conceive. This was where Reiffel and his team came in.

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“It was clear the main aim of the proposed detonation was a PR exercise and a show of one-upmanship,” confirmed Reiffel. “The Air Force wanted a mushroom cloud so large it would be visible on Earth.” In his opinion, “Had the project been made public there would have been an outcry.”

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Reiffel continued, “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.” In theory, the bomb needed to be of a similar size to the one dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.

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Reiffell had reservations, which he expressed. He said, “I made it clear at the time there would be a huge cost to science of destroying a pristine lunar environment, but the U.S. Air Force were mainly concerned about how the nuclear explosion would play on Earth.” With his employers showing no signs of backing down, Reiffel knew he needed someone to do the math.

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Enter Sagan, whose job it was to conduct mathematical modeling on the dust cloud that would be created from the bomb’s detonation. Reiffel wanted to know how far it could expand into space, which would obviously affect the visibility level on Earth. Sagan also suggested there could be microbial life on the lunar surface and that the bomb may be able to detect those organisms.

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In the end, Project A119 was abandoned and the U.S. concentrated on putting a man on the moon, instead of blowing it up. Reiffel isn’t sure of the official reason for the project being scrapped, but he’s happy that it was. He told The Observer, “Thankfully, the thinking changed. I am horrified that such a gesture to sway public opinion was ever considered.”

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There are a few theories as to why the Air Force put the project into mothballs. Some observers believe that they were worried about potential dangers to the citizens of Earth. If the mission didn’t go to plan or the bomb malfunctioned in any way, they weren’t sure what fallout the Earth could expect.

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Another theory is that Reiffel and his team were concerned about potentially contaminating the moon. If the bomb blast left radioactive material on the surface, this could have negative effects on any future missions to walk on or even colonize the moon. Finally, some believe the Air Force was worried that the plan would be a public relations disaster if people saw it as an affront to the moon’s beauty, rather than a show of American strength.

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With regards to Sagan, Reiffel made it clear that he was never approached by the young mathematician to get the go-ahead to mention Project A119 in his academic application. “It was well known that the existence of this project was top secret. Had Sagan wanted to make any disclosures to any party, as his boss at the time, I would have had to take forward any such request and Air Force permission would have been extremely unlikely in those very tense times.”

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Reiffel’s final verdict on the matter was delivered in a letter he wrote to Nature, the prominent science magazine. He again noted his happiness at the project not coming to fruition. Then he added, “But in my opinion Sagan breached security in March 1959 when he revealed the ARF’s classified projects on ‘possible lunar nuclear detonations’ in his application for a Miller fellowship.”

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Dr. David Lowry, a nuclear historian, also gave his opinion on Project A119 in 2000. He said, “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.’”

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