Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Dark Side of the Moon

In advance of tomorrow’s vote in parliament on replacing Britain's Trident independent nuclear deterrent I offer this strange, but true, story.

Sometime in 1956, an analyst at RAND came up with a really clever way of getting a jump on the Russians. W. W. Kellog decided that an atom bomb could be attached to a rocket and fired at the Moon. Timed to explode just before hitting the lunar surface, it would send an outstanding visual display back to Earth. Within RAND, the idea didn’t go very far, since analysts were busy with more important matters and, in any case, the United States at that point couldn’t put a grapefruit into orbit, much less send an atom bomb to the Moon. But the idea didn’t go away.

Two years later,
William Pickering at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory argued that such a stunt would have valuable scientific merit, given that it would “shower the Earth with samples of surface dust.” This dust (radioactive, it should be noted) could be studied, yielding valuable conclusions about the origin of the Moon. Pickering also thought that the mission would have “beneficial psychological results,” namely scaring the crap out of the Russians by demonstrating the range and accuracy of American missiles. Pickering insists that it was never more than “coffee table talk,” yet some very intelligent people spent valuable time exploring the possibility.

Unbeknownst to those who had originally proposed the idea, a secret government study was conducted at the
Armour Research Foundation in Illinois. The physicist Leonard Reiffel was asked to look into feasibility. From May 1958 to January 1959, Reiffel’s team (which included the young Carl Sagan) studied the likely effect of a Hiroshima-sized bomb on the Moon’s surface, and the visual display of such an explosion, if seen from the Earth. “As these things go, this was small,” Reiffel later confessed. “It was less than a year and never got to the point of operational planning. We showed what some of the effects might be. But the real argument we made, and others made behind closed doors, was that there was no point in ruining the pristine environment of the Moon. There were other ways to impress the public that we were not about to be overwhelmed by the Russians.”

From Gerard J. Degroot’s excellent Dark Side of the Moon, New York University Press, ISBN 9780814719954

Now read The winter's tale and For unto us a child is born.
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