Nuclear Moon, The Aesthetics of Cold War Relics, and One Epic Rocket Launch
Humankind’s story of space exploration is inexorably entangled with our story of global warfare. The early space race was primarily an arms race. NASA was born in the heat of the Cold War in 1958 under President Eisenhower and the noble goal of putting a man on the moon wasn’t the first considered course of lunar activity for the US. Recently declassified documents released by the NSA reveal that the Air Force procured serious exploratory research into detonating a nuclear bomb on the moon, producing a feasibility analysis in 1959 — two years before President Kennedy’s moon speech to Congress — innocuously titled A Study of Lunar Research Flights and with acknowledged contributions by a young Carl Sagan. The top secret “Project A119” only came to light after a 1999 Sagan biography broke the story, eventually leading to a FOIA request and the declassified first volume of the study; the other volumes have reportedly been destroyed or remain classified.
Why nuke the moon? According to the report, “specific positive effects would accrue to the nation first performing such a feat as a demonstration of advanced technological capability.” It would be the ultimate display of American military prowess and would presumably serve as a nuclear war deterrent. Scientific reasons for (and against) the proposal were also given, but it appears that the primary motive was military and political in nature, as if the plan had already been hatched and the lines of scientific inquiry were manufactured ex post facto. It was the Cold War’s underlying doctrine of self-defense via mutually assured destruction made manifest, or as President Kennedy later stated in his 1961 speech to Congress seeking funding and approval of the Apollo mission, “we will deter an enemy from making a nuclear attack only if our retaliatory power is so strong and so invulnerable that he knows he would be destroyed by our response.”
In 1957, there were multiple news reports and swirling rumors citing government sources that the Soviet Union was going to nuke the moon on November 7, coinciding with the 40th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution as well as a lunar eclipse for maximum effect. American astronomers watching the moon didn’t see a lunar mushroom cloud that night, but it has since been confirmed that the Soviet Union was running a classified project under the codename “E” that involved several phases, including stage E-4: detonating a nuclear bomb on the moon. As Boris Chertok told Reuters in 1999, “the plan was to send an atomic bomb to the Moon, so that astronomers across the world could photograph its explosion on film.” The Soviet project actually progressed one step beyond the US project and reached the prototyping stage with a full-scale mock-up of a lunar nuclear bomb in the shape of a naval mine covered with detonator rods.
Both projects were fortunately scrapped for various reasons. Reportedly, the US feared a negative public reaction and came around to the idea that putting a man on the moon would be a more surefire way to win over the public, while the Soviets acknowledged more practical concerns such as the inability to guarantee the armed bomb wouldn’t land anywhere on Earth and the high likelihood that the lunar explosion’s visibility from Earth would be less than impressive due to the moon’s thin atmosphere. A decade later, the idea still held currency among some members of the military and scientific community. In her 1969 paper for the RAND Corporation, Creation of an Atmosphere for the Moon, Leona Woods Marshall Libby described a method for creating a lunar atmosphere similar to that of the Earth by using nuclear bombs to create a thin atmosphere, followed by a massive injection of plants and bacteria “to produce atmospheric gases faster than they could escape.”
Under the Eisenhower administration, the birth of NASA was an attempt to balance the competing interests of scientific exploration and military dominance. The National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 created NASA as a civilian agency and declared, “it is the policy of the United States that activities in space should be devoted to peaceful purposes for the benefit of all mankind,” while leaving less-publicized military space programs under the auspices of the Defense Department. In the following decade, a series of international treaties — the Test Ban Treaty of 1963 and the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 — further defined “the common interest of all mankind in the progress of the exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes” by banning weapons of mass destruction in outer space and prohibiting weapons of any kind on the moon and other celestial bodies. Both treaties built upon and were modeled after the world’s first nuclear arms agreement, the Antarctic Treaty of 1959, which was the first time that science was used both as a primary rationale for establishing nonarmament regions and as a tool of diplomacy for the benefit of all humanity. Non-weaponized satellites used for military purposes such as communications and reconnaissance were included (or grandfathered) within the definition of “peaceful purposes,” but weaponized space defense systems have continued to be proposed and debated to this day.
There are still many classified secrets of the Cold War era, including many of the sites and equipment around the world that remain off-limits to the public. There are countless memorials and museums for every other major American war for the public to encounter and gain a better understanding of our history, yet there are remarkably few such cultural sites for the Cold War, a “war” which is arguably the most expensive global conflict to date. Estimates for US military expenditures during the Cold War range from $5.5 trillion to $8 trillion; for comparison, the US spent $4.1 trillion on WWII and is currently spending between $4 trillion to $6 trillion on the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.
One such site preserving some of these historically significant artifacts and at least partially open to the public (with security clearances and group reservations made in advance) is the Vandenberg Space and Missile Heritage Center, located at Vandenberg Air Force Base near Lompoc, California. The museum is housed at Space Launch Complex 10, or SLC-10, a National Historic Landmark and the best surviving example of a launch complex built in the 1950s at the beginning of the American effort to explore space during the Cold War. Originally built to launch Thor intermediate-range ballistic missiles, SLC-10 was repurposed over the years for anti-satellite weapons and meteorological satellite launches up until its decommissioning in 1980. Jay Prichard, an Air Force veteran and former missile maintainer, now serves as the director and curator of the Vandenberg Space and Missile Heritage Center on a journey that began with a crowbar in 1992 when Prichard first discovered a room full of vintage equipment behind a door that was “literally rusted shut.”
My recent visit to VAFB this January was made possible by the NASA Social Program. Thanks in part to the music videos I had created using NASA footage, I obtained social media accreditation and an invitation to attend the launch of the SMAP satellite (more on that later) along with a tour of VAFB and SLC-10. This is where I first met the enthusiastic Jay Prichard and where I first learned about VAFB’s role in the Cold War and in the history of space exploration. I’ve lived within a few hours driving distance of VAFB for almost 12 years but never fully appreciated or understood its historical significance until this eye-opening trip.
Nearly 100,000 acres in size, VAFB is the third largest Air Force base after Eglin AFB in Florida and Edwards AFB in California. A long bus ride took us deep into the base and as we approached SLC-10, some of the nondescript buildings began to emerge above the horizon of native coastal vegetation.
There is nothing particular about the buildings that indicate anything about their contents or purpose, save for a plain numerical sign in a non-threatening Helvetica font.
Decades of salty and wet conditions on the coast have left their mark on the surfaces of the structures and any equipment left outdoors.
Once inside the Vandenberg Space and Missile Heritage Center, the equipment and its functions become immediately apparent. Thousands of buttons and indicator lights labeled in mid-century fonts with ominous phrases like STRATEGIC ALERT, WARHEAD ALARM, LAUNCH IN PROCESS and MISSILE AWAY convey the unmistakable.
This is just a small sample of the instrumentation that sat between military personnel and a nuclear WWIII, the grim buttons and warning systems at the very edge of an ever-possible global annihilation. The “sea green” color was specifically chosen for much of the equipment based on psychological studies of which colors had the most calming effects on people working in “high stress” environments.
It’s one thing to see this kind of equipment as a prop in a movie, but it’s a whole other experience seeing it up close and touching it with your own hands. It’s more visceral, more heady, equal parts awe-inspiring and revolting. It touched a deep nerve for me and stirred some of the same emotions from my memory of the first time I ever handled a gun, but this was the technology of killing on a much larger scale.
Automotive designers, product engineers and user interface experts speak of the “faces” of technology. I was struck by the calm and orderly faces of this Cold War equipment with its muted colors and unassuming typefaces that stood in contrast to its powerfully devastating functions.
I couldn’t decide whether fifty years of decay made the technology appear more or less menacing. On the one hand, it seemed quaint and antiquated, impotent and unable to be reactivated without major repairs. On the other hand, it hinted at the more troubling thought that this equipment has been retired and replaced with something else, something newer and shinier. Does the new technology look the same? Is it also painted in pastel colors and adorned with polite fonts? Or does it look more sinister? It’s all classified, of course, and even if I had the security clearance to see it myself, I’m guessing I probably wouldn’t be allowed to talk about it or take photos of it.
The same technology and the same rockets that can carry payloads of mass destruction can also carry the keys to unlocking secrets of the cosmos in the form of scientific instruments designed to collect data and test hypotheses and to see all the things we are unable to see from our earthly prism. In his 1962 moon speech at Rice University, President Kennedy delicately explained this duality as follows:
For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war. I do not say the we should or will go unprotected against the hostile misuse of space any more than we go unprotected against the hostile use of land or sea, but I do say that space can be explored and mastered without feeding the fires of war, without repeating the mistakes that man has made in extending his writ around this globe of ours. There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation may never come again.
After our tour of the Vandenberg Space and Missile Heritage Center, another bus trip took us to the launch pad of the SMAP satellite at Space Launch Complex 2, or SLC-2. The Soil Moisture Active Passive satellite will orbit Earth for at least three years and will provide unprecedented global measurements of land surface soil moisture and freeze-thaw state using radar and a unique AstroMesh rotating reflector antenna system. The data collected and made publicly available will help scientists better understand and predict floods, droughts and carbon cycles. This was as close as we were allowed to get to the SMAP launch pad the day before the planned launch.
Although the Bush administration quietly removed the phrase “to understand and protect the home planet” from NASA’s mission statement in 2006 — the first time since NASA’s founding that the mission statement doesn’t explicitly mention Earth — and cut funding respectively, NASA has continued to promote Earth sciences. Earth was added back to the NASA mission statement under the Obama administration, but the debate about whether Earth sciences should be included in NASA’s mission is ongoing and politically charged.
With global weather patterns becoming more extreme and no serious proposal on the table for any other organization to take over the Earth science programs from NASA, I don’t see the logic behind the efforts to shut it down. Providing more data and gaining a better understanding of how our climate is changing and what factors are causing those changes is a good thing. It may very well be the greatest challenge facing humanity.
This is where I find fault with the “screw this planet and escape to another planet” narrative that’s been popularized in movies like Interstellar. The cost, effort and technology required to relocate our species and/or our ecosystem to another hospitable planet — assuming another hospitable planet can be found or built — far exceeds that of fixing and protecting the one hospitable planet we already have. Instead of building a mythical ark destined for an unknown land, why not just stop the flood? With all of its “scientific inaccuracies,” at least Gravity got the most important thing right: life on Earth may be hard, but outer space is significantly more brutal, harsh, indifferent and unforgiving than any other environment we’ve explored. Take away the incredible cinematography and Gravity is just a slasher flick with outer space as the relentless killer. It’s a miracle that a hospitable planet like Earth has even been able to develop and to become a safe haven for the evolution of life as we know it, and it is therefore our duty to recognize, honor and protect that miracle with the best possible stewardship.
Attending and documenting the SMAP launch was more than just a scientific excursion and a chance to cross off “NASA rocket launch” from my bucket list. It has been a direct political action. At the SMAP launch coverage, social media persons and “citizen journalists” outnumbered traditional press by more than ten to one, and two press members told me that has been the general trend for some time now. If traditional press revenues and budgets continue to fall, the sacred responsibility of informing the citizenry falls to the citizenry. That’s why I have felt compelled to cover and report on this story in my own way. We need more educated people and a more diverse group of voices discussing and tackling these big problems that have been creeping up on us for at least the past sixty years. The same old ideas and the status quo will be our demise.
We rose early the next morning, well before sunrise, since the SMAP launch was set for 6:20am. I had invited my friend, Mike Pedersen, a terrific and experimental landscape photographer, to join me at the viewing site for the rocket launch about 5 miles east of SLC-2. We trekked into the pitch black cold to put some distance between us and the noise and lights of the crowd gathered near the bleachers. We fumbled with flashlights and managed to get our tripods, cameras and sound gear setup and ready for the main event. The anticipation was palpable.
Right when the countdown reached T-4min, a wave of groans passed through the crowd as the announcement was made: upper level winds were too strong and the launch had to be scrubbed. The RV’s and campers that I had seen parked near the viewing site suddenly made sense. Apparently, rockets are prima donnas. Mike and I packed up and grabbed breakfast at a local diner in Lompoc with walls covered in pictures of the town’s rocket launching history. Mike had to return to LA for a work commit. I was able to juggle my schedule and decided to stay another day in Lompoc.
The next day, another delay was announced due to minor debonds to the booster insulation that had to be repaired. I was determined to catch the launch so I cleared my schedule and invited another group of friends from LA to bring their gear and chase the rocket with me. Two days after the originally scheduled launch date, we were back outside in the cold dark morning at the viewing site with all of our gear setup and ready.
Instead of describing what happened next, I’ll just say that it was epic. I’m thrilled to have captured an incredible audio field recording. I wasn’t able to capture video with my camera and my photos didn’t turn out (botched exposure settings), but I edited together some of NASA’s footage of the launch with my audio field recording from the viewing site and wound up with a short video that I believe captures some of the drama and excitement of space exploration for the betterment of life on Earth:
SMAP is currently on track to complete its initial checkout and commissioning activities by the end of April. Initial data products with a preliminary level of calibration will be released by August while additional calibration will continue for up to 15 months.
In the closing pages of his four-volume memoir, Rockets and People, published after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Boris Chertok made several predictions about the future of space exploration. I found this one to be his most insightful:
In the 21st century, humankind must acknowledge planet Earth’s uniqueness in the entire observable universe in order to unite the efforts of all the leading countries to preserve her. Homo sapiens is a completely exceptional phenomenon, falling outside of the scope of observations by spacecraft. This “wise man” must use the force of intellect to reliably defend the planet from the folly of unwise Homo sapiens.