Every once in a while we have the craziest ideas…
That time we almost blew up the Moon
President John F. Kennedy’s speech at Rice Stadium is the stuff of legends. In an impassioned address lasting only about seventeen minutes, the young president laid out a powerful emotional argument to the American public on exactly why so much money was being spent to send humans to the Moon:
But why, some say, the Moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?We choose to go to the Moon. We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.
But that goal of landing on the Moon wasn’t the first mission chosen to “measure the best of our energies and skills.” When the USSR launched Sputnik in 1957, the beeping satellite carried a clear message from the Soviet Union to the rest of the world, especially to America: “We, not you, control the high ground.”
As the USA invested money, time, and effort into its own rocketry programs in response and kicked off the Space Race, all kinds of ideas on how to regain that high ground were considered. One plan, codified in a report with the innocuous title “A Study of Lunar Research Flights,” examined the potential effects of the United States detonating a nuclear warhead on the Moon’s surface as a show of military superiority.
The project had a high number of unknowns, not the least of which was whether or not the warhead could be lobbed accurately at the Moon without missing and returning to Earth. Also not known was whether or not the warhead’s detonation would incidentally create enough radioactive fallout to deter future human landing on the Moon. The project was fortunately abandoned in 1959, and the Moon remains nuke-free.
In a humorous postscript, it’s worth mentioning that Kennedy’s Rice speech actually works just as well if one replaces each instance of “go to the Moon” with “blow up the Moon.” Seriously, try it.