Thursday, 12 July 2012

Project Horizon, or: Let's Nuke the Moon!

Have you ever noticed how a bad idea often seems to make sense at the time? Like a kebab after a night out, or firing a nuclear missile at the Moon? Yes, that’s right, both the Soviet Union and the USA seriously considered hurling an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile at the moon as a show of technical prowess and an attempt to cow the other into submission. The USA’s idea, known as project A119, was to detonate the warhead just on the dark side of the Moon’s terminator line, throwing a cloud of dust deep into space to maximise the visibility of the explosion.

Combine testosterone with egotism (which, when you get right down to it, are the driving forces of most history before women could vote) and this is what you ultimately end up with. Much as I am willing to defend many of the qualities of my gender, I seriously doubt a woman would have come up with an idea this patently stupid. Not to mention the fact that the moon is a traditional symbol of femininity; make what you will of the image of a missile plunging into its pristine landscape, untouched since the creation of the earth.

But project A119 simply scratched the surface of the bizarre lengths a country love drunk for nuclear weapons was willing to go to. In the same year, the US Army Ballistic Missile Agency tendered a proposal for a base on the moon, under the name “Project Horizon”, to house twelve soldiers. So far there’s nothing too crazy about that, apart from the dubious ethicality of the first human contact with an extraterrestrial body being militarised.

But then the craziness really ratchets up a notch. What if the Soviet Union established its own moon base? A Moon Base gap couldn’t be tolerated. The American base would be defended against Soviet infiltration by Claymore mines specially modified to puncture space suits and Davy Crockett rockets armed with 0.01 Kt yield nuclear warheads. Apart from the obvious explosive effects, these would apparently generate an instantly lethal radiation dose of 10,000 REM within 500 feet, and a probably fatal dose of 600 REM within a quarter of a mile.

The scenario can’t help but become a parody of the cold war as a whole. In the event of a Nuclear conflict on earth, what possible good could one country’s astronauts being in control of the moon do when their homeland was reduced to molten radioactive slag? They would be in possession of a dead world, devoid of the means of sustenance or any hope of rescue (just like their commanders back on Earth marooned in subterranean bunkers).

Perhaps the final word on the speculative confluence of space and nuclear war should go to Philip Wylie and his 1963 novel Triumph. In the novel, the houseguests of an improbably well prepared millionaire take refuge in the luxurious fallout shelter he has built in the mountain beneath his mansion when the sirens sound. Their attempts to make radio contact with the outside world are responded to only by astronauts stranded in an orbital weather station, desperately requesting orders. One of the characters posits that at least the astronauts are in “a box seat. But at what a cost”; the radiation-drenched earth above the bunker might as well be the vacuum of space for how hostile it has become to life.

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