Carl Sagan and Project A119

For this new article on Space Legal Issues, let us have a look at Carl Sagan and Project A119. Carl Sagan was an American astrophysicist known to have popularize science in the USA. Sagan was one of the first to hypothesize that the satellite of Saturn, Titan, and the satellite of Jupiter, Europa, may have oceans (it was assumed that in Europa, the ocean was under a surface of ice) or lakes. He suggested that the ocean of water in Europa could be habitable. Confirmation of the existence of the subglacial ocean in Europa was indirectly obtained with the help of the probe Galileo. Carl Sagan also hypothesized that seasonal changes on Mars occur due to dust storms and not phenomena associated with the presence of vegetation, as previously assumed.

Carl Sagan proposed the idea of ​​searching for extraterrestrial life, urging the scientific community to search for signals from intelligent extraterrestrial life forms using large radio telescopes and to send probes to other planets. He was one of the founders of the Planetary Society and a member of the board of directors of the SETI Institute. Carl Sagan, on the other hand, participated as a researcher in Project A119, a covert operation of the U.S. Air Force whose purpose was to drop an atomic bomb on the Moon.

Project A119 or “A Study of Lunar Research Flights”, is a secret plan developed by the U.S. Air Force in the 1950s to drop an atomic bomb on the surface of the Moon. It is believed that the purpose of this project was to show the superiority of the United States of America over the Soviet Union and the rest of the world during the Cold War. The existence of the project was announced in the 2000s by the former head of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Leonard Reiffel, who led the project in 1958. The young Carl Sagan was part of the team in charge to predict the effects of a low gravity nuclear explosion.

The plan was not implemented, perhaps because the Moon landing was more acceptable to American citizens. Design documentation has been kept secret for almost forty-five years, and despite Leonard Reiffel’s revelations, the United States government has never officially acknowledged its participation in the project.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the U.S.S.R. and the United States of America improved their nuclear weapons and carried out nuclear tests in different environments. Space tests were also common, until the conclusion of the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT). The Partial Test Ban Treaty is the abbreviated name of the 1963 Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapon Tests in the Atmosphere, in Outer Space and Under Water, which prohibited all test detonations of nuclear weapons except for those conducted underground. The treaty, also commonly known as the Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTBT), had three main aspects: (1) prohibiting nuclear weapons tests or other nuclear explosions under water, in the atmosphere, or in outer space, (2) allowing underground nuclear tests as long as no radioactive debris falls outside the boundaries of the nation conducting the test, and (3) pledging signatories to work towards complete disarmament, an end to the armaments race, and an end to the contamination of the environment by radioactive substances.

It was in the vein of these tests in 1958 that the United States of America and the U.S.S.R. planned to carry out nuclear explosions on the Moon. These projects were not intended to be carried out, but explosions in the upper-atmosphere and in space were carried out quite often.

Let’s note that in 1949, the Armour Research Foundation (ARF), based in the Illinois Institute of Technology, began studying the impact of nuclear explosions on the environment. These studies continued until 1962. In May 1958, the ARF began a secret investigation into the possible consequences of a nuclear explosion on the Moon. The main objective of the program, organized under the auspices of the United States Air Force, was to carry out a nuclear explosion on the Moon, which would be visible from Earth. The ARF believed that such an experience would contribute to the growth of the patriotism of the American people.

During the project, newspapers spread rumors that the U.S.S.R. had planned to detonate a thermonuclear bomb on the Moon. In late 1957, the American press also reported that the U.S.S.R. planned to celebrate the anniversary of the October Revolution, coinciding with the lunar eclipse of November 7, 1957, with nuclear explosions on the Moon.

Ten members of the team, led by Leonard Reiffel, were brought together at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago to study the potential visibility of the explosion, its scientific significance and its impact on the lunar surface. Among the members of the research team were astronomers Gerard Kuiper and his doctoral student Carl Sagan, who was responsible for the mathematical modeling of the expansion of the dust cloud in space around the Moon, which was an important factor for determining the visibility of the explosion from Earth. To implement the project, scientists originally planned to use a thermonuclear bomb, but the U.S. Air Force vetoed the idea because of the weight of such a device; at the time, there were no launchers capable of putting such mass in low Earth orbit (LEO) and delivering enough cargo to the Moon.

Project A119 was canceled by the U.S. Air Force in January 1959. Reasons have not been given. Presumably, on the one hand, the initiators of the project and the American leaders feared a negative reaction from the public and, on the other hand, the Project A119 could represent a danger for the population in the event of unsuccessful launch. Another argument against Project A119, cited by Leonard Reiffel, was the possible consequences of radioactive contamination of large areas of the Moon, which could in the future be used in the study and colonization of the Moon.

Subsequent studies have shown that a corresponding Soviet project actually existed, but it was different from the scenario reported in the press. Launched in January 1958, it was part of various plans, codenamed “E”. Project E-1 was intended to reach the surface of the Moon, while projects E-2 and E-3 were intended to send a probe to the back of the Moon in order to take a series of photographs of its surface. The final step in the project, E-4, was to launch a nuclear strike on the Moon. Like the U.S. plan, a number of E projects were canceled in the planning phase due to concerns about the safety and reliability of the launcher.

This article was written by Valentina PETROVA (Paris-Saclay).