At 18:49 in Scott Manley's video The Craziest Things You Can Do With Nuclear Weapons he says:

This was an idea to… it was a number of ideas; they thought it could raise morale with the US. The idea was that they would fly a nuke to the Moon and basically hit the “dark side” and create a giant explosion that would be visible to the naked eye from Earth. They would actually try to launch a dust cloud into space that would also be visible over the terminator.

This idea is pretty crazy to be honest, but one of the names involved you might know, it was a guy called Carl Sagan, who obviously had billions and billions of problems with this idea, yet definitely worked on it, and then accidentally revealed it to the public in a research application for a position.

Question: Where was Carl Sagan working when he worked on this idea, and where was he applying when he "accidentally" revealed it to the public?


The project that Scott Manley is referring to was known as Project A119, and was run at the Armour Research Foundation (ARF), which was based at the Illinois Institute of Technology. The ARF is now known as the IIT Research Institute.

The official title of Project A119 was A Study of Lunar Research Flights, and Volume 1 of the report, produced in 1959 by the Air Force Special Weapons Center (now known as the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center), can be read or downloaded as a pdf on archive.org.

Sagan was a member of a team of up to ten people led by Leonard Reiffel. This article published in the Guardian newspaper on 14 May 2000 notes that:

Sagan's biographer, Keay Davidson, discovered that he had disclosed details of it when he applied for the prestigious Miller Institute graduate fellowship to Berkeley.

Davidson's biography, titled Carl Sagan: a Life, is also available to read on archive.org. The incident mentioned in the Guardian article is described on page 110:

In the fierce competition for the Miller Fellowship, Sagan needed an ace, something truly distinctive, something that would make the Miller judges sit up and take notice. So he decided to confide to them information that he was required by federal law to keep secret. He revealed his research at the Armour Research Foundation on the remote detection of lunar nuclear explosions. He must have known the risk he was taking. The information was classified; he had previously cautioned Muller not to discuss it with others.

So it would seem that the revelation was not actually an accident, as stated in Manley's video, nor was it quite as "public" as implied.

In the event, Sagan's application was successful. His two-year fellowship started in September 1960 and brought with it a stipend of $7,500 per year and a $500-a-year "contingency fund for travel, supplies, and equipment".

  • my goodness that was quick! Okay now I can read about it further, thanks!
    – uhoh
    Aug 24 '19 at 8:01
  • So, did he get the fellowship?
    – Spencer
    Aug 24 '19 at 19:02
  • 1
    @Spencer Yes. The two-year fellowship started in September 1960, with a stipend of $7,500 per year and a $500-a-year "contingency fund for travel, supplies, and equipment". Aug 24 '19 at 19:11
  • 4
    Hmm... "Remote detection of lunar nuclear explosions" seems quite different from actually working on detonating a nuclear weapon on the moon. Of course, I'm sure the Air Force of the 1950s/60s would use the need to test such a system as an excuse to execute such an explosion, but that doesn't necessarily mean Sagan worked on that part of it or even that they necessarily had a plan for that. A lot of nuclear explosion detection systems have been put into place by the USA and others over the years, both terrestrially and in space. I'd be a bit surprised if there weren't one for the moon.
    – reirab
    Aug 24 '19 at 21:15
  • 2
    @reirab We know that he worked on Project A119. The report doesn't say exactly who worked on what parts of the project. According to the Guardian article, Leonard Reiffel seems to have confirmed that they did make preliminary plans but said in his letter to Nature: "Fortunately for the future of lunar science, a one or two horse race to detonate a nuclear explosion never occurred ", so presumably it never went beyond that preliminary stage. In any event, it's a distinction you'd need to take up with Scott Manley. Aug 24 '19 at 21:23

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