Meet the Chicago Man Who Planned to Nuke the Moon

Chicago inventor Leonard Reiffel worked with Carl Sagan to see what would happen if an atomic bomb hit the moon. Valuable research! But a bit of a PR risk.

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U.S. Department of Energy

Awhile back I was listening to The Bugle, the podcast of British comedians Andy Zaltzman and John Oliver (veterans of the late, lamented BBC radio show The Department), and they made some jokes about a recently declassified U.S. plan to nuke the moon.

The news made a bit of a fuss, since it’s, you know, totally insane (and proof, if proof were needed, that it’s Mr. Show’s world and we’re just living in it.) The concept, known as Project A-119, was simple: the Russkies had just launched Sputnik; we had failed to launch a satellite of our own, but did envision a capability of launching a bomb into space and blowing a hole in the moon because it played to our strengths. It was technologically sophisticated and conceptually simple war gaming, demoralizing the commies by flexing balls in space.

When I heard about it, I wondered if my alma mater, where students wear t-shirts reading “Where the End of the World Began,” had something to do with it. It seemed like the sort of lunatic nuclear brinksmanship that might have come out of Hyde Park. And I wasn’t far off. Project leader Leonard Reiffel, a Chicago native and colleague of Enrico Fermi, was hired away from the University of Chicago’s Institute for Nuclear Studies by IIT, then the Armour Institute. At IIT, he worked with a team that included a young University of Chicago Ph.D. student in astronomy and astrophysics, Carl Sagan, to examine what would happen if the United States set off a nuclear bomb on the moon’s surface.

Reiffel and his team focused on the potential scientific benefits of a lunar blast; beyond scaring the crap out of humanity, Reiffel et al. concluded that the nuke could be used to test the thermal conductivity of the lunar surface; as a light source, effectively turning the moon into a giant spectrogram to examine the composition of the moon; and a man-made earthquake for “the possibility of certain determination of at least the immediate sub-surface structure of the moon.”

He never got to run his experiment. In 2000, Reiffel broke the existence of the project in a letter to Nature, calling it first and foremost “a PR device, without question, in the minds of the people from the Air Force.” They decided that the PR impact would be pretty bad; as Reiffel delicately put it in 1958, “unless the climate of world opinion were well-prepared in advance, a considerable negative reaction could be stimulated.” Rather than taking its satellite and going home, the U.S. held off and sent a person instead of a nuclear weapon, which turned out to be a significant PR success.

Reiffel served as the Apollo program’s deputy director from 1965-1969. Two years into his tenure, Apollo I caught fire during a launch-pad test, killing astronauts Gus Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chafee. The typically cited cause of the fire was NASA’s lack of understanding of how the high-pressure, pure-oxygen atmosphere in the cabin would respond to fire. Reiffel contended later, to the Chicago Tribune, that the problem wasn’t knowledge, but communication:

“I had done a review of flammabilty issues two months before the accident…. The problem is that I didn’t ask how the testing was being done….

“Had I or my boss known it the tests would have been stopped….

“That is a most tragic and dramatic example of the details people must follow in a complex system,” Reiffel recalls. He says it was physically impossible for project supervisors to be present everywhere and that the means for communicating all details, such as the capsule pressure, were inadequate.

Reiffel’s idea to improve such communication was teleconferencing, and specifically video that could be annotated. And while working for NASA, Reiffel held a sideline as a science consultant for and commentator on CBS and WTTW. So Reiffel left NASA in 1969 to pursue his dream of a “superimposed dynamic television display system,” or as his mother (a retired CPS principal and employee of Reiffel’s company) coined it, a Telestrator: “a novel visual display system wherein figures, diagrams or drawings formed of linear elements may be readily, conveniently and quickly superimposed upon a normal television image at the transmission end of the system.”

Reiffel managed to get a primitive version of the Telestrator, using electron tubes instead of the solid-state memory that would make the device more practical—until then it was a wildly unreliable piece of equipment—on his own WTTW show. In the early 1970s, Reiffel sold WBBM weatherman John Coughlin on the idea. Here’s Coughlin in 1974 using the gadget:

At 2:40 in this 1981 clip from “Inside Out—the Magic of TV,” WBBM’s Roger Field shows the wonders of the Telestrator (“it allows the weatherman to write on the screen such symbols as ‘rain,’ ‘lightning,’ ‘hot,’ ‘cold,’ ‘fog’).

The next year it would finally be used on a national television broadcast and find the use it’s become most famous for: first in the legendary Montana-to-Clark NFC championship game, and a couple weeks later when noted Telestrator addict John Madden used it to draw all over the 1982 Super Bowl, with Reiffel in the booth (here’s Madden at the game, demonstrating the Telestrator’s interface). Reiffel didn’t get rich off the Telestrator; Madden’s popularization didn’t help the company turn a profit in the years after it went public in 1983. But it’s still the form of augmented reality the world is most familiar with, as the world starts to look a bit more like Reiffel wanted it to.

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