USSR planned to atom bomb Moon

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The Independent Online
HAD SOVIET astronauts been first to land on the Moon, they might have done more than just plant a flag. They considered detonating an atom bomb, in an explosion that would be visible from Earth, to prove they were there before their rivals.

The nuclear flash might have been visible with the unaided eye, despite being 250,000 miles away. It would also have meant "no one would have doubted the Soviet Union was capable of landing on the surface of the Moon", says Boris Chertok, now 87, a leading rocket scientist from the earliest days of the Soviet space programme.

The plan was hatched in 1958, though there was no way then to predict whether such an explosion might have had a disastrous effect on the Moon's crust. "The plan was to send an atomic bomb to the Moon, so that astronomers across the world could photograph its explosion on film," says Dr Chertok. At the time, atomic tests were all the rage as the Soviet Union and the US vied for supremacy in the Cold War.

The USSR had joined the nuclear race in 1949, detonating a warhead over Siberia. In the next nine years they and Britain carried out 396 atmospheric tests of nuclear weapons. The Moon looked just another test ground, albeit harder to reach than Pacific atolls.

The plan was dropped only when the scientists realised the absence of an atmosphere on the Moon meant there would be no "mushroom cloud" to accompany the explosion, nor the rolling ball of burning gas.

"Our physicists decided the flash would be so short-lived, because of the lack of an atmosphere on the Moon, that it might not register on film," says Dr Chertok.

Sir Martin Rees, Britain's astronomer royal, believes the bomb would probably not have caused any damage to the Moon. "It would just be another small crater."

Soviet scientists have admitted their quest for the Moon was futile, because they were hampered financially. Despite that, they managed to be the first to put a satellite in orbit with Sputnik, put the first male astronaut and first female astronaut into space, and werefirst to hit the Moon with a probe in 1959. They also landed an uncrewed craft in 1966.

And in 1968, the Soviet Union sent the first space ship to orbit the Moon with life abroad, returning turtles back to Earth. Clearly, wiser counsel had prevailed over delivering bombs to the Moon.