Shooting for the Moon
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

September/October 2000

Jeffrey T. Richelson


The idea of weapons in space is nothing new. One early military plan for nuking the moon was publicized a few months ago with the publication of Keay Davidson's biography, Carl Sagan: A Life. Early in his career, Sagan worked for a secret military project researching the idea of detonating a nuclear device on the lunar surface, just to see what would happen. Manhattan scientist Edward Teller was also interested, if not directly involved, in the project. As strange as the idea of blasting the moon was, however, it was only one of several proposals for the military exploitation of the moon in the late 1950s. With space flight becoming a reality, both army and air force planners wanted to establish lunar footholds.

But it was not to be. As Jeffrey Richelson notes in the following article, dreams of militarizing the moon died in the 1960s. Both the Eisenhower and Kennedy/Johnson administrations believed the moon should be used solely for peaceful purposes, principles that were eventually embodied in the Outer Space Treaty of 1967.

But "what goes around, comes around." Today, the moon is still off-limits, but military planners at U.S. Space Command believe that near-Earth space should be equipped with a variety of precision weapons, arguing that if the United States doesn't put arms in space, someone else will.

Officials at Space Command believe the United States needs to use near-Earth space to achieve "full spectrum dominance of the battlespace" by 2020. In July, Space Command hosted the Joint Warrior Interoperability Demonstration, which is designed to improve the ability of the United States to defend its assets in space.

As Gen. Richard B. Myers put it in April 1999, Space Command needs to fashion a "space control mission" that will "ensure use of space on our [U.S.] terms." Myers was commander-in-chief of Space Command when he said that. Now, as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he is the nation's second-highest-ranking military officer. That, one suspects, would gladden the hearts of the military space enthusiasts Jeffrey Richelson writes about.

During a May 25, 1961 address to a joint session of Congress, President John F. Kennedy told his audience he believed "that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth."1

The United States had recently suffered another setback in the space race that began with the launch of Sputnik in October 1957. On April 12, 1961, the Soviet Union had become the first nation to place a man in space and in orbit around the Earth. Such feats left the United States and its new president searching for the answer to one basic question: Was there a manned space program the United States could commit itself to with the expectation of beating the Soviets? On April 19, Kennedy asked Vice President Lyndon Johnson, who also served as chairman of his Space Council, to study the question. The report that resulted inescapably pointed to a moon landing as the answer.2

On July 20, 1969, a little more than eight years after Kennedy's address to Congress, a worldwide audience of approximately 600 million watched a live transmission as Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon--a feat no Soviet astronaut would ever accomplish.

Armstrong was joined 30 minutes later by Buzz Aldrin. The two placed a plaque whose inscription included the statement, "We came in peace for all mankind." They also planted the U.S. flag, an act that had been mandated by Congress. The legislation directing the action noted that: "This act is intended as a symbolic gesture of national pride . . . and is not to be construed as a declaration of national appropriation by claim of sovereignty."3

Things had worked out as well as senior officials of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) could have hoped a decade earlier, when they targeted a landing on the moon as the second component of their manned space program. But it was not what some elements of the U.S. Air Force and Army had in mind at all.

Great expectations

Novelists and scientists had been writing about journeys to the moon since the early seventeenth century. But it was not until the late 1950s that the technologies existed that allowed scientists to treat space travel as a realistic possibility. The beginning of the space age was also, according to Jack Ruina, who served as director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) under President Kennedy, a time of "great expectations." Despite the tremendous unknowns surrounding space programs, many believed that "everything would work."4

The U.S. military services looked at the new arena and envisioned an assortment of programs: satellite systems to perform reconnaissance, meteorological, and communication missions; manned space platforms; and space weapons operating near the Earth. But the visions of the air force and army did not stop there. The moon, some believed, would be the ultimate high ground in the battle for strategic supremacy.

One of those who most fervently believed in the military potential of the moon was the air force's Brig. Gen. Homer A. Boushey. In a late January 1958 address to Washington's Aero Club, Boushey, then the service's deputy director for research and development (and subsequently its director of advanced technology), specified two possible military uses of the moon--as a missile base and as the home of an observatory to spy on developments within the Soviet Union.

Boushey asserted that missiles fired from the moon--or possibly catapulted (as in Robert Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress)--could be observed and guided from start to impact (an act not possible on Earth due to its rotation). The launch sites might even be located on the far side of the moon, invisible to the most sophisticated of Soviet telescopes.

In addition, the launch sites would present an insoluble problem for Soviet strategists. An attack on the United States could be observed from the moon, and "sure and massive retaliation" would follow 48 hours later. If the Soviets attempted to remove the lunar-based retaliatory force first, they would have to fire missiles toward the moon two and a half days before they attacked the United States. Appropriately, parts of Boushey's speech were published in the February 7, 1958 issue of U.S. News & World Report, whose cover read, "Why Soviets Plan 'First Blow': What Missiles Mean in Red Strategy."

Boushey not only told his audience of the strategic advantages of a lunar missile base, but "with man and his intelligence once established upon the moon the possibilities of construction and creation of an artificial environment are virtually unlimited." Energy, rocket fuel, and oxygen could all be extracted from the moon, he said.

In another forum, Boushey noted a very logical implication of any U.S. decision to turn the moon into a military base--that the moon would have to be U.S. property. He observed that the United States should not fail to be first on the moon. "We cannot afford to come out second in a territorial race of this magnitude. . . . This outpost, under our control, would be the best possible guarantee that all of space will indeed be preserved for the peaceful purposes of man."5

Boushey was not alone in this sentiment. In 1959, Gen. Dwight Black, the air force's director of guided missiles and special weapons, told Congress, "I would hate to think that the Russians got to the moon first. The first nation that does [get there] will probably have a tremendous military advantage over any potential enemy."6

The army also had its eye on the moon and outer space in 1959. The army's list of requirements for space, submitted in response to a request from the director of ARPA, included a number of devices for space transportation and combat--an "interspace vehicle," a "space patrol vehicle," and a "space forward command post"--as well as a manned lunar outpost, a lunar assault vehicle, and a lunar surface vehicle.7

The Military Lunar Base Program

Although a 1958 National Security Council policy document noted the possible use of the moon for a manned military base, neither the army or the air force appears to have been given any indication from higher authorities that their ideas for a militarized moon were likely to be accepted. But that did not prevent them from pursuing those ideas.

In 1959, the air force had two lunar base studies under way. SR-183 focused on establishing a lunar observatory that might host photographic and other optical and electromagnetic sensors targeted on the Earth and near space. SR-192 focused on a possible "Lunar Strategic System," which might include a "military bombardment retaliatory capability from a moon base."8 A third study had an even grander vision: SR-182 was concerned with "Strategic Interplanetary Systems," which would involve operating vehicles and weapons beyond the orbit of the moon and other planets for military purposes.9

A number of aerospace firms were involved in these lunar studies. In the first quarter of 1959, the Air Force Ballistic Missile Division, Wright Air Development Center, Strategic Air Command, NASA, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory were briefed on the lunar base concept by Boeing, Republic Aviation, Douglas Aircraft, General Electric, and several other firms. (Earlier, the Martin Cooperation had completed a classified study, Military Requirements for a Moon Base.) The companies suggested that the whole program might cost $20 billion. But the authors of the study questioned the cost and value of an observatory, considering that it would be able to productively view the Earth for only a small portion of the day.10

Their pessimism was not reflected in one of the ultimate products of the study efforts, an April 1960 Ballistic Missile Division report that had two different titles, depending on audience. The first title, Military Lunar Base Program, was classified; the second, S.R. 183 Lunar Observatory Study, was not.11

The study concluded that it was "technically feasible" to establish a manned base on the moon--"that the problems have been analyzed, and logical and reasonable extensions to the 'state-of-the-art' should provide the desired techniques and equipments." It noted the tentative conclusions of the SR-192 effort still in progress: that "the lunar base possesses strategic value . . . by providing a site where future military deterrent forces could be located" and that "a military lunar system has potential to increase our deterrent capability by insuring positive retaliation."12

The study also concluded that the government could defer for three to four years a final decision on the types of strategic systems to be placed on the moon (one suggestion was the "Lunar Based Earth Bombardment System"), but "the program to establish a lunar base must not be delayed and the initial base design must meet military requirements." The base would have to be designed as a permanent, underground, completely self-supporting installation with suitable accommodations to support extended tours of duty (of seven to nine months) for approximately 20 people.13

The report foresaw a six-phase program. Lunar probes would be followed by lunar orbiting vehicles, and then a soft landing on the lunar surface. An unmanned vehicle would land on the moon and return, bringing along a core sample of the lunar surface. Development of a manned vehicle would be followed by the first manned expedition to the moon and lunar base development. The later phase would include construction of a temporary base, then a permanent underground base, and installation of operational surveillance equipment. Once the base was completed, a monthly flight to the moon would be needed to support it.14

The authors of the April 1960 report not only specified the phases of a lunar base program, but a schedule. They envisioned the first lunar sample being returned to Earth in November 1964, the first manned landing and return in August 1967, establishment of a temporary base in November 1967, and completion of the permanent base in December 1968. The base would become operational in June 1969.15

Project Horizon

The air force was not the only military service that had been studying the possibility of a lunar outpost in 1959. In June of that year the Army Ordnance Missile Command submitted its four-volume Project Horizon report on the feasibility of a manned lunar base to Army Chief of Staff Maxwell Taylor. The study, produced by a group headed by Werner von Braun, argued that a lunar outpost was "required to develop and protect potential United States interests on the moon, to develop moon-based surveillance of the Earth and space, in communications relay, and in operations on the surface of the moon." The lunar base would also serve as a base for exploration of the moon, for further exploration of space, and for scientific investigations on the moon.16

The study also argued that the establishment of an outpost was of such importance that it "should be a special project having an authority and priority similar to the Manhattan Project." It warned that the Soviet Union had openly announced that some of its citizens would celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the October 1917 revolution on the moon. If the Soviets were to be the first to establish a moon base, it "would be disastrous to our nation's prestige and in turn to our democratic philosophy."17

The report envisaged use of the army-developed Saturn rocket to ferry personnel and supplies to the moon, with the first cargo being delivered in January 1965. A two-man team would arrive in April, and by November 1966 a full 12-man task force would be in place. To deliver all the men and equipment necessary through November 1966, 147 trips to the moon would be required. In addition to a lunar landing vehicle and a spacecraft to return personnel to Earth, the Saturn would have to carry materials to construct an underground base consisting of 10 compartments, as well as nuclear reactors to provide lighting and air conditioning. In the first full year of operations, starting in December 1966, another 64 Saturn launches would be necessary. The estimated cost for the first eight and a half years was $6 billion.18

As space expert John Logsdon wrote in 1970, those numbers "seem truly remarkable for their na´vetÚ with the hindsight of 10 years' time, when five Saturn launches a year, not a month, is above normal activity, and when the cost of Project Apollo has been placed at $24 billion."19


On May 29, 1961, just four days after President Kennedy told Congress of his vision of a U.S. landing on the moon before the end of the decade, the Space Systems Division of the Air Force Systems Command issued its secret Lunar Expedition Plan (Lunex). Lunex went beyond an investigation of feasibility to specify exactly how and when (July through September 1967) an air force-sponsored landing on the moon would take place.

Part of the plan focused on the multitude of technical developments that would have to take place as well as the information that would have to be acquired in order to make the plan a reality. Landing on the moon and launching a return flight were characterized as "difficult development[s]." Much greater knowledge of lunar topography and composition was also needed--areas which, the plan reported, were the subject of ongoing air force projects. Thus, the air force was attempting to determine lunar composition "by means of spectrometric analysis of the natural X-ray fluorescence of the moon due to the bombardment of the lunar surface by solar radiation."20

If things went as planned, a three-man crew would orbit the Earth in April 1965. In July 1966, a three-stage booster, the "Space Launching System," would carry the first cargo payload to the moon--a two-and-a-half day trip. The cargo would be soft-landed (at a rate of approximately 20 feet per second) on the moon by the "Lunar Landing Stage," which was to be capable of "landing on an extremely rough surface." A manned flight around the moon would follow in September 1966.21

Then, in August 1967, as had been specified in the lunar base study, three air force astronauts would land on the moon and return. The same Space Launching System that delivered cargo to the moon would also carry the 134,000-pound, three-part "Manned Lunar Payload." One part of that payload would be the 20,205-pound, delta-shaped "Lunex Re-entry Vehicle" and its three-man crew. The same lunar landing stage, weighing about 85,000 pounds, was to soft-land the re-entry vehicle along with the third part of the payload--a 30,000-pound "Lunar Launching Stage," whose job was to launch the re-entry vehicle back toward Earth. All together, the lunar payload was projected to be 52 feet, 11 inches long.22

The vehicle that would carry the astronauts back to Earth was to be capable of reentering the atmosphere at 37,000 feet per second as well as making a conventional aircraft landing at Edwards Air Force Base in California or another suitable location.

While the three men who were to arrive on the moon in August 1967 would not be staying long, the next threesome, scheduled to arrive in January 1968, were to be the first contingent to man a permanent base. It was projected that, at any one time, the permanent base would be the home of 21 men, drawn from a pool of 145. Along with those 145, another 3,677 men and women on Earth would support the Lunex activity--performing launch, instrumentation, supply, support, administrative, and other tasks. Details on the construction and operation of the base were to appear in the apparently yet unreleased Permanent Satellite Base and Logistic Study, which was still being written at the time the Lunar Expedition Plan was issued.23

One implication of both the air force and army plans for the moon, as noted by generals Boushey and Black, was that the United States would have to claim the moon as U.S. property and keep the Soviet Union from landing on it. The Project Horizon study noted that any military operations on the moon "will be difficult to counter by the enemy because of the difficulty of his reaching the moon, if our forces are already present and have [the] means of countering a landing or of neutralizing any hostile forces that have landed." Of course, any attempt to turn the moon into a military base might have spurred a substantial Soviet effort to do the same--or at least to obstruct the U.S. effort.

But despite the intense effort that elements of the air force and army put into studying and planning for lunar outposts, there was no serious possibility that their plans would be approved. In 1958, President Dwight Eisenhower had set the tone for future manned space endeavors when he awarded the responsibility for manned, earth-orbiting space flight to the newly created NASA. He did so for at least two reasons--the absence of a solid military rationale for placing a man in orbit, and his commitment to a "space for peace" policy.24

In 1961, with the change in administrations, the air force hoped its man-in-space ambitions might be realized, as reflected by continuing work on the Lunex Expedition Plan. But the new administration still heeded a 1958 assessment by the President's Scientific Advisory Committee. That panel had produced a pamphlet titled Introduction to Outer Space, which reviewed possible military applications of space. It noted the potential value of communications, reconnaissance, and meteorological satellites, but it was less favorably inclined toward weapons in space. The panel added that "much has been written about space as a future theatre of war," with suggestions like "military bases on the moon," but "most of these schemes . . . appear clumsy and ineffective ways of doing a job."25

Indeed, reconnaissance satellites provided far better and cheaper coverage of the Soviet Union and other terrestrial targets than a lunar observatory could. And the creation of a strategic triad, particularly the buildup of significant land and sea-based missile forces, along with sophisticated warning systems, served to confront Soviet strategic planners with the knowledge that an attack on the United States would result in "sure and massive retaliation," even without U.S. missiles on the moon.

Jeffrey T. Richelson is a senior fellow with the National Security Archive, Washington, D.C., and the author of America's Space Sentinels: DSP Satellites and National Security (1999).

For more details of the Lunex project see "The Lunar Expedition Plan Lunex" from the Headquarters of the Space Systems Division Air Force Systems Command, May 1961.


  1. Quoted in John Logsdon, The Decision to Go to the Moon: Project Apollo and the National Interest (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970), p. 128.

  2. Ibid., p. 109.

  3. William E. Burrows, This New Ocean: The Story of the First Space Age (New York: Random House, 1998), p. 426.

  4. Telephone interview with Jack Ruina, March 19, 1992.

  5. Brig. Gen. Homer A. Boushey, cited in Logsdon, The Decision to Go to the Moon, p. 31.

  6. Ibid.

  7. Memorandum for the Secretary of the Air Force, Subject: (U) Air Force Requirements for Space Systems, April 10, 1959.

  8. R. D. Allen, "Early Lunar Base Concepts of the U.S. Air Force," paper presented at the 43rd Congress of the International Astronautical Federation, August 28-September 5, 1992, Washington, D.C., p. 6.

  9. Ibid.; "USAF Explores Strategic Space Plans," Aviation Week, Sept. 28, 1959, pp. 26-27.

  10. "USAF Considering Moon Base by 1968," Aviation Week, April 27, 1959, pp. 26-27.

  11. Directorate of Space Planning and Analysis, Air Force Ballistic Missile Division, Military Lunar Base Program or S. R. 183 Lunar Observatory Study, Volume I: Study Summary and Program Plan, April 1960, cover page.

  12. Ibid., pp. I-1, I-6.

  13. Ibid., p. I-1.

  14. Ibid., p. I-3.

  15. Ibid., p. I-7.

  16. Frederick I. Ordway III, Mitchell R. Sharpe, and Ronald C. Wakeford, Project Horizon: An Early Study of a Lunar Outpost, Paper IAA-87-659, presented at the 38th Congress of the International Astronautical Federation, Brighton, England, October 10-17, 1987, pp. 2, 5; Project Horizon Report: A U.S. Army Study for the Establishment of a Lunar Outpost, June 9, 1959, ch. 1, p. 1, available at

  17. Project Horizon Report, ch. 1, p. 3.

  18. Ibid., ch. 2.

  19. Logsdon, The Decision to Go to the Moon, p. 52.

  20. Headquarters, Space Systems Division, Air Force Systems Command, Lunar Expedition Plan (Lunex), May 1961, ch. 1, pp. 4; ch. 3, p. 2, available at

  21. Ibid., ch. 1, p. 13; ch. 2, p. 2.

  22. Ibid., ch. 1, pp. 4-5; ch. 2.

  23. Ibid., ch. 1, p. 6; ch. 5, p. 1.

  24. Logsdon, The Decision to Go to the Moon, pp. 28, 30; see also This New Ocean, p. 102.

  25. Logsdon, The Decision to Go to the Moon, p. 19.

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