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A bit of history


Power Poster III
Major Contributor

What Happened When America Tried To Detonate A Nuclear Bomb On The Moon​

In the midst of the Cold War's intense and often bizarre battles for supremacy, there exists a secret chapter that few have ever heard of – Project A119. This audacious, top-secret plot conceived by the United States during the 1950s aimed to detonate a nuclear bomb on the Moon, an endeavor so astonishingly unconventional and provocative that it remains a little-known and jaw-dropping episode in history.

Project A119 reveals a shocking side of the competition, where the United States contemplated a lunar explosion as a means to assert its dominance in a high-stakes game of technological one-upmanship. Unveiling the incredible details of this astonishing scheme, this article delves into the world of America's clandestine lunar ambitions and the wild twists of Cold War-era science and politics that shaped its destiny.

In the wake of the startling launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union, the U.S. Air Force initiated a covert project with the cryptic title, "A Study of Lunar Research Flights," which would later be known as Project A119. Behind this enigmatic name lay a daring plan to detonate a nuclear bomb on the lunar surface. The project engaged some of the world's foremost nuclear scientists, many of whom were affiliated with the Armour Research Foundation in Chicago, with Leonard Reiffel being a notable figure among them.

Project A119 was not just a theoretical exercise; the U.S. military meticulously planned the detonation of a bomb on the Moon with a specific objective in mind. The Air Force sought to ensure that a nuclear blast on the lunar surface would be visible to observers on Earth, and this mission had a profound underlying purpose: to assert American superiority in the ongoing Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union. To achieve this, the Project A119 team devised a strategic approach, deciding to target the terminator, which is the line separating the dark and light sides of the Moon. This choice was made with the intention of maximizing the visibility of the explosion and making a powerful statement about the technological prowess of the United States to the world.


The crazy plan to explode a nuclear bomb on the Moon​

Project A119, as it was known, was a top-secret proposal to detonate a hydrogen bomb on the Moon. Hydrogen bombs were vastly more destructive than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, and the latest in nuclear weapon design at the time. Asked to "fast track" the project by senior officers in the Air Force, Reiffel produced many reports between May 1958 and January 1959 on the feasibility of the plan.

Incredibly, one scientist enabling this horrific scheme was future visionary Carl Sagan. In fact, the existence of the project was only discovered in the 1990s because Sagan had mentioned it on an application to an elite university.

While it might have helped to answer some rudimentary scientific questions about the Moon, Project A119's primary purpose was as a show of force. The bomb would explode on the appropriately named Terminator Line – the border between the light and dark side of the Moon – to create a bright flash of light that anyone, but particularly anyone in the Kremlin, could see with the naked eye. The absence of an atmosphere meant there wouldn't be a mushroom cloud.

It didn't help American nerves that Sputnik was launched on top of a Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile – albeit a modified one – nor that the US's own attempt to launch an "artificial moon" ended in a huge, fiery explosion. The inferno that consumed their Vanguard rocket was captured on film and shown around the world. A British newsreel at the time was brutal: "THE VANGUARD FAILS.

All the while, US schoolchildren were being shown the famous "Duck and Cover" information film, in which Bert the animated turtle helps teach children what to do in the event of a nuclear attack.

Later that same year, US newspapers citing a senior intelligence source reported that "Soviets to H-Bomb Moon On Revolution Anniversary Nov 7" (The Daily Times, New Philadelphia, Ohio) and then followed it up with reports that the Soviets might already be planning to launch a nuclear-armed rocket at our nearest neighbour.

Strangely, this scare also likely motivated the Soviets to develop their plans. Codenamed E4, their plan was a carbon copy of the Americans', and eventually dismissed by the Soviets for similar reasons.

"It is a pretty interesting window into the sort of American mindset at that time. This push to compete in a way that creates something very impressive. I think, in this case, impressive and horrifying are a bit too close to each other."

Could these plans surface again, despite the international consensus? "I've heard some noises coming out from some places and the Pentagon about looking at US Space Force missions for the lunar environment," Bowen says.

If some of the more outlandish ideas don't find root in the US, that doesn't mean that they couldn't find favour further afield – such as China. "I wouldn't be surprised if there's a community in China now wanting to push some of these ideas because they think the Moon is cool, and they work in the military," Bowen adds.

Most of the details of Project A119 are still shrouded in mystery. Many of the were apparently destroyed.


In the pantheon of astonishing academic achievements, few stories capture the imagination quite like that of John Aristotle Phillips, a Princeton University student who sketched out the design for a functional atomic bomb on a budget that would barely cover a used car. The year was 1976, and the episode, unfolding during a tense era of the Cold War, presented the United States with a provocative question: Could a physics student with a modest budget and access to public documents indeed design a nuclear weapon?
Phillips, known as the “A-bomb kid,” crafted his design for a physics seminar, using only his nuclear engineering textbook and two unclassified government documents. The bomb he described was sophisticated enough to fit inside a U-Haul trailer and could be assembled for approximately $2,000—a stark contrast to the millions typically spent on nuclear armaments. His professor acknowledged the viability of the design.
The implications were chilling. As Phillips himself remarked, “any other physics major could do this better.” The idea that political terrorists or non-nuclear states could replicate his work and create a devastating weapon was a frightening prospect for the U.S. government. In a move that underscored the potential threat, the FBI confiscated his paper.
Phillips’s brush with nuclear fame had a profound effect on his trajectory. He became an anti-nuclear activist, ran for Congress twice, and later founded Aristotle, Inc., leveraging his political savvy into a successful career. His firm, specializing in political campaigns and data analytics, has since served every occupant of the White House since Ronald Reagan.

After Building the Atomic Bomb, the Government Dumped Deadly Toxic Waste in a Quiet Suburb

For decades, a St. Louis community has been plagued by illnesses. They say radioactive material from the Manhattan Project in their local landfill is to blame.
In 1946, the government acquired a property of nearly 22 acres alongside Lambert–St. Louis Municipal Airport, where they shipped barrels of toxic materials.
The northern reaches of St. Louis County were largely unpopulated then, consisting mostly of gently rolling farmland. The communities that were there, however, were not informed of the contents of the thousands of barrels moved to the site, and those who noticed trucks making mysterious deliveries were lied to. In 1946, the St. Louis Star-Times reported that the site had been “used secretly for several months for storage of ‘certain residue materials from the refining of uranium ores’” at Mallinckrodt. Factory officials claimed they were “not radio-active and not dangerous.” The mayor of nearby Berkeley told the newspaper: “If they say the material is not dangerous, we have to take their word for it.”
In 1947, an Atomic Energy Commission panel reported that the uranium byproducts could pose “the gravest of problems” if they were thoughtlessly discarded in gradually disintegrating barrels. In the 1960s, AEC researchers found that the 121,050 tons of radioactive material near the airport contained the largest concentration of thorium-230 in the nation, and possibly the world. One scientist determined that the waste’s thorium concentration was 25,000 times greater than what would exist in nature. Thorium-230 was known to be a health hazard on par with plutonium, and with a half-life of more than 77,000 years, it would decay to radium-226 and grow “hotter”—more radioactive, and more dangerous.
As these barrels sat out in the open, developers began building homes throughout the surrounding area. The combined population in the towns of Florissant, Hazelwood, and Black Jack grew from about 4,000 in the 1950s to around 85,000 today. Virtually no one filling these suburban enclaves had any clue what the government had left behind.
Over time, officials overseeing the Mallinckrodt waste transfer discontinued the use of the barrels and the mirage of safety they implied. Crews heaped the radioactive material into piles that morphed the site into a moonscape, a third of which sat in a floodplain. Wind scattered dried-out uranium byproduct, and runoff from rainstorms washed “directly into the groundwater system,” the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) noted. The terrain also tilted toward Coldwater Creek, which winds northward to the Missouri River. Rainwater that cascaded down the mounds of radioactive waste flowed directly into the stream.
To understand what happened in North St. Louis County—and what’s still happening when Coldwater Creek floods—imagine shaking out the contents of a feather pillow on a windy day. Those feathers will blow away, then land and pick up again in later gusts. Some will float along currents, settling downstream and spreading via floodwaters into the surrounding landscape.
In 1966, a Contemporary Metals subsidiary, Continental Mining and Milling Co., began moving the waste a half mile away to a building in Hazelwood, spilling material from trucks en route. The company went bankrupt soon after, and its lender tried and failed to auction off the residues. In 1969, the creditor sold it to the Cotter Corporation, which planned to ship the waste by rail to its uranium plant in Cañon City, Colorado. Cotter officials calculated that they could reduce shipping costs by drying the material, so they left it outside, again uncovered and exposed to the elements.
The uranium, processed multiple times, had been reduced to tiny particles that permeated the region. “Even one of these microscopic particles is a consequential dose,” says Marco Kaltofen, PhD, a civil engineer and the owner of Boston Chemical Data Corp. “There’s our problem. You have unseeable, microscopic particles, of which there are countless trillions and trillions that have gone into the environment.”
It’s alive.
That’s how the neighbors alongside the landfill describe it: as a living creature, a growling menace—the modern-day incarnation of Typhon, the monster of Greek mythology with a hundred dragon heads, cast into the underworld but still capable of unleashing volcanic powers. It has resided 240 feet down in the Missouri earth, gurgling and hissing, for the past 13 years.
Republic Services, the Phoenix-based owners of the Bridgeton Landfill, where the beast resides, never uses the word fire. Company officials refer to it as a “subsurface smoldering event” or an “underground exothermic heat-generation reaction.” Republic Services crews monitor the fire around the clock, like stockbrokers sweating margins on a volatile trading day: watching ground temperatures, the state of the gases and liquids, the rate at which the ground is sinking. (Republic Services did not respond to multiple requests for comment.) This data is critical because the beast must be contained. If it spreads even a couple hundred yards, it could reach another landfill, West Lake, that is home to a different kind of nightmare. West Lake harbors the origins of the Manhattan Project—47,000 tons of radioactive waste that was, according to an investigation by the Associated Press, MuckRock, and the Missouri Independent, dumped illegally.
The worst-case scenario, as Stuhlman sees it: The fire reaches the waste and releases a plume of smoke filled with active isotopes—a radioactive cloud, or “dirty bomb. The fire may now be within 300 feet of West Lake’s radioactive waste—but that’s a guess, because the Mallinckrodt material has dispersed over time. In March, the EPA reported that two years of sampling had revealed that the landfill’s contaminated areas were “larger than previously known.”

Dispersal is quite a bit outside the landfill. Local creek contamination.
Before it was a superfund site it was surrounded and partially flooded in the 93 flood.

The Battle of Athens Saw Armed War Veterans Take On Corruption in Their Local Government​

In the post-war summer of 1946, the small town of Athens, Tennessee became the epicenter of an event that went down in history as the Battle of Athens. This wasn’t merely a physical confrontation, but a fight against entrenched corruption, and it was a battle that symbolized the broader struggle against tyranny and injustice in post-war America.

The protagonists of this historic grandstand were none other than returning World War II veterans, who, after fighting overseas, found themselves facing a new kind of enemy on home soil. The corruption in Athens had been brewing for over a decade under Sheriff Paul Cantrell and his associates, who’d manipulated the political landscape. These veterans, witnessing the disintegration of democracy and fairness in their town, decided the time had come to take action.

Their training, coupled with a deep-seated belief in justice, prepared them for the confrontation that unfolded.

The Battle of Athens

The GIs came home to find that a political machine had taken over their Tennessee county. What they did about it astounded the nation.
Since the Civil War, political offices in McMinn County had gone to the Republicans, but in the 1930s Tennessee began to fall under the control of Democratic bosses. To the west, in Shelby County, E.H. Crump, the Memphis mayor who had been ousted during his term for failing to enforce Prohibition, fathered what would become the state’s most powerful political machine. Crump eventually controlled most of Tennessee along with the governor’s office and a United States senator. In eastern Tennessee local and regional machines developed, which, lacking the sophistication and power of a Crump, relied on intimidation and violence to control their constituents.

In 1936 the system descended upon McMinn County in the person of one Paul Cantrell, the Democratic candidate for sheriff. Cantrell, who came from a family of money and influence in nearby Etowah, tied his campaign closely to the popularity of the Roosevelt administration and rode FDR’s coattails to victory over his Republican opponent.

Fraud was suspected—to this day many Athens citizens firmly believe that ballot boxes were swapped—but there was no proof. Over the following months and years, however, those who questioned the election would see their suspicions vindicated. The laws of Tennessee provided an opportunity for the unscrupulous to prosper.
The more GIs they arrested,” one vet recalled, “the more they beat us up, the madder we got.”
Learn from history or live to repeat it!
What goes around comes around!

August 1, 1946: Election Day found voters lined up early in the largest turnout in local history. Joining them were some three hundred of Sheriff Mansfield’s special deputies. Trouble began early. At 9:30 A.M. Walter Ellis, a legally appointed GI representative at the first precinct in the courthouse, was arrested and jailed for protesting irregularities. A small group of the veterans demanded an armed mobilization. The group crossed the street, held a meeting, and agreed that those who did not have weapons should get them and return as quickly as possible.
Bill White, who had fought in the Pacific while still in his teens and come home an ex-sergeant, had gotten angrier as the day wore on. At two in the afternoon he had harangued the group of veterans in the Essankay, saying: “You call yourselves GIs—you go over there and fight for three and four years—you come back and you let a bunch of draft dodgers who stayed here where it was safe, and you were making it safe for them, push you around. … If you people don’t stop this, and now is the time and place, you people wouldn’t make a pimple on a fighting GI’s ass. Get guns…”
By 3:00 P.M. most were back at the Essankay and most were armed. At about this time, Tom Gillespie, an elderly black farmer from Union Road, stepped inside the eleventh-precinct polling place in the Athens Water Works on Jackson Street. Windy Wise, a Cantrell guard, told Gillespie, “Nigger, you can’t vote here.” When Tom protested, Wise struck him with brass knuckles. Gillespie dropped his ballot and ran for the door. Wise pulled a pistol and shot him in the back as he reached the sidewalk.
White says he was the one to call it out: “Would you damn bastards bring those damn ballot boxes out here or we are going to set siege against the jail and blow it down!” Moments later the night exploded in automatic weapons fire punctuated by shotgun blasts. “I fired the first shot,” White claimed, “then everybody started shooting from our side.” A deputy ran for the jail. “I shot him; he wheeled and fell inside of the jail.” Bullets ricocheted up and down White Street. “I shot a second man; his leg flew out from under him, and he crawled under a car.” The veterans bombarded the jail for hours, but Cantrell and his accomplices, secure behind the red-brick walls, refused to surrender.
At 2:48 A.M. the first dynamite was tossed toward the jail; it landed under Boe Dunn’s cruiser, and the explosion flipped the vehicle over on its top, leaving its wheels spinning. Three more bundles of dynamite were thrown almost simultaneously; one landed on the jail porch roof, another under Mansfield’s car, and the third struck the jail wall. The explosions rattled windows throughout the town; leaves fell from the trees, debris scattered for blocks, and the jailhouse porch jumped off its foundation. The deputies barricaded in the courthouse a block away rushed onto the balcony, eager to surrender. The jail’s defenders staggered from their ruined stronghold and handed the ballot boxes over to the veterans.

With the Cantrell forces conquered, ten years of suppressed rage exploded. The townspeople set upon the captured deputies and, but for the GIs, probably would have killed them all. Minus Wilburn, a particularly unpopular deputy, had his throat slashed; Biscuit Farris, Cantrell’s prison superintendent, had his jaw shattered by a bullet; and Windy Wise was kicked and beaten senseless.
The “victory” of the veterans that night in August 1946 appeared, at first, to have settled nothing. The national press was almost unanimous in condemning the action of the GIs. In an editorial perhaps best reflecting the ambivalence of a startled nation, The New York Times concluded: “Corruption, when and where it exists, demands reform, and even in the most corrupt and boss-ridden communities, there are peaceful means by which reform can be achieved. But there is no substitute, in a democracy, for orderly process.” The syndicated columnist Robert C. Ruark commented: “There is very little difference, essentially, between a vigilante and a member of a lynch mob, and if we are seeking an answer to crooked politics, the one that the Athens boys just propounded sure ain’t it.” Commonweal cautiously compared the battle to the American Revolution, then went on to say that “nothing could be more dangerous both for our liberties and our welfare than the making of the McMinn County Revolution into a habit.”
In the mid-fifties Athens was isolated by a new highway that intercepts Highway 11 south of Niota and rejoins it at Riceville. Along it a new Athens grew, a town of McDonald’s, Kawasaki, and Pizza Hut. If you ask people along the street about the election of August 1946, they will point up White Street and mumble something vague about a shoot-out. There are no signs or monuments to commemorate the event; people have forgotten or do not wish to remember. But the graying manager of a local store, a friendly sort and so gentle with his grandchildren, squeezed off round after round at the jail that night. And the driver snoozing behind the wheel of his cab, not really caring whether he catches a fare or not, helped wrap and toss the deadly bundles of dynamite that sailed through the night air. You can bet they remember.

Malcolm Paul Cantrell (August 28, 1895 – July 8, 1962) was a Democratic Tennessee politician and state senator.
@william - thank you for sharing this article. I had a vague awareness of the ongoing fire and potential radiation hazard at this Republic Services site. But this article adds context and perspective. Members of my in-law's family live in Hazelwood. Yikes. Just yikes.

If your interested in these types of environmental disasters, there is another one in Missouri that is also interesting, though not having to do with radioactive substances. Look into the Times Beach, MO dioxin cleanup. That one is fascinating too.