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Bonestell images of lunar bombardment
Nearly a decade before Sputnik artist Chesley Bonestell illustrated one potential use of a lunar base—launching nuclear weapons towards Earth—that stuck in the minds of military planners for years afterwards. (Copyright Bonestell Space Art, used with permission)

Take off and nuke the site from orbit (it’s the only way to be sure…)

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Rockets on the Moon

“There is not much of a general nature to be said about the presentations except that they all seemed a little fantastic,” Hartman wrote in an introductory memo. “The Douglas presentation was the briefest, most pessimistic and most down to Earth—if a lunar venture may be so described.” He ranked the Boeing and Republic briefings the lowest and stated that “all of the presentations suffered greatly from a lack of basic knowledge about the subject discussed. In them the meager knowledge that exists was over-extrapolated. Fanciful concepts were described which, aside from the intellectual stimulation they produced, are probably of little value.” Nevertheless, he thought that the overall effort was worthwhile because the studies did lead the companies to start thinking about various space missions.

Although the study focused on using the Moon as an observation base, Boeing, like several other contractors, advocated basing nuclear missiles on the Moon in underground silos. In his memo to NASA Headquarters, Hartman drew a crude sketch of Boeing’s underground base, which included a spiral staircase down from the surface, two levels of crew quarters, and 50- and 200-inch (125- and 500-cm) telescopes that could be adapted for infrared surveillance and communications. The base would also have a radio telescope and surface vehicles. The base might actually be excavated through bombardment from space, which Hartman euphemistically called “hard landing.”

Boeing’s schedule was to “probe” the Moon from 1958 to 1961, explore the surface with humans from 1963 until 1973, and begin site preparation and construction in the middle of the 1960s, with the goal of beginning operations by the end of the decade. Ultimately, according to Boeing’s plan, 116 men would reach the Moon by 1973, and the effort would cost $8 billion by the end of 1965 and $30 billion by the end of 1967, with peak spending of about $10 billion that year.

None of this was remotely like what actually happened. The Apollo program ultimately cost approximately $24 billion through the early 1970s. For approximately the same amount that Boeing projected, Apollo landed a dozen men on the Moon, not ten times that many, and never seriously considered the establishment of a base under the lunar surface.

Although the study focused on using the Moon as an observation base, Boeing, like several other contractors, advocated basing nuclear missiles on the Moon in underground silos.

However, not all of Boeing’s speculation was outlandish. The company recommended that for astronomical observations the Air Force could install a 240 inch (610 cm) focal length telescope inside a large airplane such as a B-52. The plane would carry the telescope high above much of the Earth’s atmosphere. NASA flew an infrared telescope aboard an airplane in 1964 and then the dedicated Kuiper Airborne Observatory starting in 1974, and is now developing the SOFIA observatory utilizing a Boeing 747. Another Boeing suggestion was the possibility of using space tethers to boost satellites into higher orbits. Although NASA tested tether technology in the 1990s, the agency abandoned it.

North American concluded that surveillance of the Earth was the chief value of a lunar observatory and that possible missions for a lunar base included signals intelligence collection, television and photo surveillance of the Earth, and navigation aids and communications relay. But the company’s engineers admitted that observation of the Earth was challenging from such distances. For instance, detecting a Soviet ICBM silo with 90% certainty required a photographic system with one-meter resolution, demanding a truly massive telescope on the lunar surface. The company’s engineers figured that a human circumlunar flight could be mounted by 1962 with a manned landing by 1963 or 1964. Much of the team’s presentation consisted of identifying the steps required to achieve those goals, such as the liftoff thrust of the rocket vehicles and the radiation threat on the Moon. The team concluded that the proper approach to base design was “wide open,” which Hartman translated to mean “no one knows anything about it.”

The Douglas group, like Boeing, also concluded that military intelligence and reconnaissance from the Moon, including “aid in facilitating retaliatory strikes,” were the primary missions for a military lunar base. Douglas also noted that the Moon could be used as the site of a spinning liquid mercury mirror. Such a mirror, the company claimed, would be easy to carry to the Moon and would not be affected by meteorites, but it could not change its observation direction. According to Douglas, the advantages of the Moon over satellites were that it was a more stable platform, a harder target to attack, possessed exploitable natural resources, and had a gravitational field that would provide a more natural environment for humans.

Douglas’ engineers proposed that the basic element of their Moon base would be a telescoping series of pie-shaped wedges that folded into a wedge-shaped capsule for transportation. This would then open into a torus-shaped igloo with an inner bag to hold pressure. Douglas later proposed that basic design as an Earth-orbiting space station, but its greatest legacy was when a company scale model was acquired by the Star Trek television production team in the latter 1960s and turned into the famed K-7 space station for the episode “The Trouble With Tribbles.” (see “Boldly going: Star Trek and spaceflight”, The Space Review, November 28, 2005)

Unlike North American’s team, Douglas concluded that signals intelligence from the lunar surface seemed “far-fetched.” Similarly, observing ICBM launches on the Earth from the Moon was not possible, but a satellite in a 24-hour (i.e. geosynchronous) orbit could see them with an infrared telescope. As a matter of fact, it was precisely this approach that was developed by the Air Force a decade later, although it was TRW and not Douglas that built the first geosynchronous missile warning satellite, launched in the early 1970s.

Of all the contractor teams, Republic was the only one to declare that prestige was a primary reason for establishing a lunar base. The military missions included weather observation and monitoring of enemy movements, satellite attack, retaliatory bombardment, signals intelligence collection, space vehicle detection and tracking, scientific and experimental use, and a staging base for interplanetary missions. But Republic also noted that the Moon was so far from Earth that it was not an ideal observation platform. A 75- to 100-centimeter mirror on the lunar surface could observe features on the ground about 300 meters wide, whereas a similar mirror in geosynchronous orbit could resolve objects about ten times better. Like Douglas, Republic concluded that signals intelligence from the Moon was impractical. Republic concluded that of all the missions, the establishment of a retaliatory base appeared to be the most promising, echoing Boeing and Douglas.

Republic suggested that the best plants to grow on the Moon were corn, peanuts, soybeans, and lettuce. Water could possibly be extracted from rocks and volcanic ash. But Republic did not underplay the difficulties of a lunar base, noting that developing a closed ecological system would be a major engineering challenge. Communications would also be problematic because the line of sight was short due to the high surface curvature, and relay satellites would be required. Because communications bandwidth would be limited, most data should be processed on the Moon and only the results sent back to Earth.

The Moon is a harsh mistress

Although Hartman was only reporting on the midpoint of the study effort, the contractors’ work revealed several common themes. Many of them suggested that the Moon’s surface was a poor base for observations of the Earth and that Earth orbit was superior. Discounting all of the problems of working on the Moon, the simple fact was that the Moon was too far away. Put the same size telescope in geosynchronous orbit and it could see ten times better, provided that you could solve the problems of pointing and stabilization, which Lockheed achieved within a few years. Other military missions such as signals intelligence were not really viable from the Moon. And although Hartman’s notes don’t say it, one problem with the Moon is that it only viewed about half of the Earth at any one time. Even with a substantial base on the Moon, the United States would still need satellites to observe the rest of the Earth—and if observation satellites were already in Earth orbit, what use was a Moon base?

Even with a substantial base on the Moon, the United States would still need satellites to observe the rest of the Earth—and if observation satellites were already in Earth orbit, what use was a Moon base?

Another characteristic of these early studies was that the contractors knew very little about the problems of working on the Moon, even when some of those hazards should have been obvious. For instance, they were concerned about the threat from ultraviolet radiation from the Sun, but none of them appear to have mentioned galactic cosmic rays, which had been discovered early in the century. They suspected that lunar dust might be a problem due to static electricity and the possibility of deep “dust traps,” but did not know that lunar dust could be incredibly abrasive. And their proposals for digging underground bases were proven to be insanely optimistic once the Apollo astronauts reached the surface and had a very difficult time driving their flagpoles into the ground.

The Lunar Expedition

These various studies were finalized by September 1959. In April 1960 Ballistic Missile Division produced its “Lunar Observatory Study,” which also had the classified title of “Military Lunar Base Program.” To date only the nine-page summary has been declassified and several Air Force historians have searched for, and failed, to find the more extensive version. This summary was based upon reports provided by the contractor teams, noting that Boeing, North American, and United Aircraft had all been funded, whereas Douglas, Republic, and Minneapolis-Honeywell (originally teamed with United Aircraft) had been “voluntary contractors.”

The short summary focused on the initial steps needed to establish a lunar base, stating that the primary goal was to reach the Moon and build a base there, and the Air Force could take several more years before beginning work on the military aspects of the project—in other words, the goal was to build it and figure out what to do with it later.

By 1961 the Air Force produced another study, called Lunex, for “Lunar Expedition,” that further outlined plans for a 20-person lunar base. The Lunex study estimated that a base could be built for only $8 billion. But Lunex was the high-water mark of the military lunar base concept. By May 1961 President Kennedy announced the goal of sending civilian Americans to the Moon by the end of the decade, not to build a base, but simply to land there; all talk of a military Moon base evaporated.

What Edwin Hartman’s notes imply is that there may be a real legacy to these early studies. They may have prompted some of the first evaluations within various aerospace companies about what kinds of space missions they could do, not on the Moon, but closer to Earth.

But something else had happened in the meantime—by 1960 the US Navy had launched the first of its Polaris ballistic missile submarines, the USS George Washington. The George Washington was survivable, and its missiles, although relatively short-ranged compared to a missile launched from the Moon, which could theoretically reach any spot on the Earth, were accurate enough to nuke a city. The Navy spent $64 billion on 41 Polaris submarines and 5000 missiles by 1967. That was an expensive program, but it provided a huge amount of retaliatory power. The Air Force never could have based more than a few missiles on the Moon. Although the SR-192 study that focused on a lunar missile base has never been released, or apparently even found in Air Force archives, it undoubtedly concluded that the cost of even a limited retaliatory base on the Moon would be enormous.

Wernher von Braun’s Project Horizon study was a crash effort started after SR-183 and finished before it. Soon after Horizon was finished von Braun and his organization were transferred to NASA, and some of his ideas developed for the Horizon study were ultimately implemented as part of Apollo. But the Air Force studies involved far more companies and exposed many of them to the problems of spaceflight for the first time. What Edwin Hartman’s notes imply is that there may be a real legacy to these early studies. They may have prompted some of the first evaluations within various aerospace companies about what kinds of space missions they could do, not on the Moon, but closer to Earth.

Some of the Harman memos reporting on the lunar briefing can be downloaded here (warning: 2 MB PDF file).