Slide Rules, A Big Bang, and the Moon

Slide Rules, A Big Bang, and the Moon

Dateline:  1958 – Cold War America.  The United States failed twice to launch a man-made satellite into orbit.  In late 1957, the Soviets successfully launched a beach ball sized satellite under its Sputnik space program.  Americans feared that the Soviets remained perched on the cusp of winning the Space Race, and with it, nuclear supremacy.  This “Sputnik Crisis” sent the already overheated space exploration community into hyper-drive.  No costs would be sparred to achieve space supremacy.

The U.S. needed something grand to recapture the faith of the American people, justify the flow of endless dollars to the space program, and show up the Soviets.  Top Secret Air Force Project A119 was just the ticket.  In 1958, the U.S. created Project A119 – A Study of Lunar Research Flights.

Detonating a nuclear bomb on the surface of the Moon remained the stated goal of Project A119.  Blowing up the Moon with a nuke would assist in studying mysteries in planetary astronomy and astrogeology.  In addition, the flash from a nuclear explosion on the Moon should be visible from earth, including being visible to the Soviets.  Ahh.  There it is.  The true mandate for Project A119:  a show of military force and boost to domestic morale to respond to the Sputnik Crisis.

Officially, Project A119 remains a Top Secret, classified project.  The U.S. Government will not acknowledge its existence or respond to formal requests for information.  Enter a youthful Carl Sagan.  In 1958, Carl Sagan continued his doctoral studies at the Illinois Institute of Technology, including the development of mathematical projections of the expansion of a dust cloud resulting from detonating a nuclear bomb on the lunar surface as part of Project A119.

In 1959, Sagan applied for an academic scholarship at the University of California, Berkeley.  In the application, Sagan provided extensive details of his involvement with Project A119, including identifying two papers to which Sagan contributed:  Possible Contribution of Lunar Nuclear Weapons Detonations to the Solution of Some Problems in Planetary Astronomy, and Radiological Contamination of the Moon by Nuclear Weapons Detonations.  Apparently, Carl Sagan missed all the memoranda and instructions about the Top Secret nature of Project A119.  These disclosures were still maintained under wrap until a 1999 biography of Sagan disclosed them to the public at large.

After publication of this 1999 biography, the leader of Project A119, Leonard Reiffel, acknowledged that a ten-member team evaluated blowing up the Moon.  The team studied utilizing different types of atomic bombs; effects of an atomic explosion in oxygen-free space; Earthly visual impacts of a nuclear detonation on the dark side of the Moon; and magnitude of resultant dust clouds.  In offering these revelations in 2000, Reiffel, a retired NASA top executive, denunciated all the work for Project A119, noting that as a scientist, he was “horrified that such a gesture to sway public opinion was even considered.”  Better late than never with remorse.

Yet, in 1958, apparently neither Reiffel nor Sagan (or any of the ten-member scientific team) were sufficiently “horrified” with Project A119.  Indeed, they proceeded studying the atomic, scientific, engineering and mathematical angles of blowing up a nuclear device on the Moon.  In 1958 America, we were not far removed from Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Communist witch hunts.  The father of the atomic bomb, Robert Oppenheimer, became person non-grata after publicly opposing development of a thermonuclear bomb.  The Project A119 scientists lived through the atrocities of WWII, with some of them fleeing to the United States.  The Cold War represented part of the fabric of everyday life.  Failure to embrace and support a patriotic cause of the U.S. would get you labeled a Communist, or at least a sympathizer.  These real-life dynamics do not justify Project A119, but they do help to explain how the scientific community actively participated in such an exercise.

Today, the mere idea of blowing up the Moon does not merely sound incredibly stupid, but also insane.  In 1958, perhaps the full effects of nuclear explosions were not truly appreciated or understood.  Nonetheless, the Government, scientists, and general public certainly knew that atomic weapons presented significant, and lasting, impacts.  To illustrate both the known dangers and limits of our knowledge at that time, simply look to the nuclear bomb drills in schools with students taking cover under their desks for protection from nuclear bombs.  Radiation could not possibly permeate those protective Math and Spelling books in the desks above the students’ heads!  In fairness, if nuclear fallout had to stop to diagram a sentence, it may have been stunted in its progress.

Even with consideration of societal pressures and dynamics in the late 1950s, the U.S. charged some of the very top scientists to devise a plan to blow up the Moon.  Just who made the decision and how did it unfold?  With Top Secret status still invoked by the U.S. 65 years later and generally limited available information, we can only speculate as to the origins of the plan to nuke the Moon.  Two groups appear as prime candidates to start us along this nuclear path:  the Military/Political faction and the Scientific community.  I envision that each group approached the decision in different fashions.

The Scientific Committee brought together by the Air Force would have consisted of top scientists, engineers and mathematicians.  The foundation meeting might have progressed as follows:

“Okay, Gentlemen [Side Note: All Committee members are male as the professional deck was entirely stacked against women in 1958 and beyond], the Soviets successfully launched a satellite and our two efforts failed.  America relies on us to come up with an amazing and better plan.  Any ideas?”

“Well, Boss, hear me out on this one.  I have out of the box thinking here.  We have trouble with satellites, but we are pretty good with nuclear bombs.  We can by-pass the entire circling the Earth phase and proceed directly to delivering a nuclear bomb to the Moon.  We can detonate it on the Moon’s surface so that the Soviets can see the mushroom cloud.  Now, that will be impressive.”

“That is big thinking, indeed.  But what about environmental impacts, radiation, or safety issues in transporting a nuclear bomb by rocket?”

“We’ll call the Project The Study of Lunar Research Flights so it sounds like we are actually studying those kind of issues.  The rest are details, details, details.  We have the brightest minds from all scientific fields in this room.  What could possibly go wrong?  To the Moon, I say, and let’s blow it up!”

All Committee members cheer: “To the Moon!  To the Moon!  Give that guy another pocket protector and slide rule!”

Perhaps a little out of character for scientists, but we do know that some group came up with the idea for Project A119.  Let’s check in with the hypothetical initial meeting of the Military and Political leaders.

“Okay, Boys [Side Note: Not even consideration of women in this group in 1958], the Soviets successfully launched a satellite and our two efforts failed.  America relies on us to come up with an amazing and better plan.  Any ideas?”

“Well, General, hear me out on this one.  I have an idea to knock the red socks off the Ruskies.  Well strap a nuclear bomb to a rocket, send it to the Moon, and blow out a new crater so the Man in the Moon has a dimple in his chin.  The Soviets will pee their pants in fear and every American will love us.”

“Brilliant!  Promote that guy two ranks!

“Excuse me, General, but what about environmental impacts, radiation, or safety issues in transporting a nuclear bomb by rocket?”

“Who invited the Commie sympathizer?  Those are details, details, details.  Those eggheads in the other room will love the challenge to make this happen within twelve months.  For political cover, we will call the Project The Study of Lunar Research Flights.  What could possibly go wrong?”

All Military and Political Committee members chant: “Blow up the Moon!  Blow up the Moon!”  Meeting adjourned.

These imaginary initial meetings are fantastic, and yet, the U.S. Government became determined to proceed with Project A119 with a goal to detonate a nuclear bomb on the surface of the Moon just to show up the Soviets.  Some group actually analyzed these issues in some detailed fashion and decided to proceed with a full Top Secret Project.  Our leaders at work.

Not to be outdone, years later we learned that at the same time, the Soviets embarked on their own Top Secret Project E-4.  Project E-4 included a plan to deliver and detonate an atomic bomb on the Moon’s surface.  This revelation does not make Air Force Project A119 less insane.  Instead, the existence of a parallel Soviet plan to blow up the Moon simply confirms that many passengers can fit in the Crazy Boat at the same time.

The Soviets successfully launched the Sputnik satellite in 1957 and the Cold War turned into a Space Race on steroids.  Both the U.S. and Soviets set their sights on the Moon.  Exploration of the nearest orbiting body?  Nope.  Scientific examination of the makeup of the Moon and what it might teach us?  Nah.  Study the effects of no gravity?  Not even close.  Rather, Mankind’s first interaction with a planetary object beyond the Earth would be a nuclear kiss of death.  “One small nuclear device detonated on the Moon’s surface.  One enormous mushroom cloud to scare our enemies.”  Not quite as catchy as Neil Armstrong.

Fortunately for the human race, the U.S. eventually abandoned Project A119 determining that the risks of an explosion during the launch cycle outweighed potential benefits.  Please note, the potential impacts on the Moon were not among the reasons to abandon the project.  Independently, the Soviets also scrapped Project E-4 for unstated “safety concerns.”  In reality, both the U.S. and Soviets recognized that any dust cloud or mushroom cloud associated with a lunar nuclear explosion would fail to produce the desired, dramatic, visible with the naked eye, impact so coveted.  As the explosion would be a dud from the perspective of the Earth, why bother?  The Moon was saved as it was simply too far away for target practice.

In the 1960s, the U.S. and Soviet Union entered two treaties in which the Superpowers pledged to keep the Moon out of consideration for any nuclear testing or targeting.  By that time, both countries knew that a lunar nuclear strike would have little showmanship effect.  Whatever the reasons, these treaties rendered moot the need for another Project A119.  Let’s hope that there is not a different Project A120 under consideration (or actually in play).

In estate planning meetings with clients, we inevitably reach the “what if” phase in discussing alternate trustees or agents to serve in plan documents and address contingent circumstances.  At times, clients may roll their eyes and I know they are thinking that the exercise is silly as certainly those events I describe could never come to fruition.  Even with the most far fetching hypotheticals I present, I have never invoked an example of detonating an inter-planetary nuclear device as a concern.

Nonetheless, when clients question the likelihood of crazy hypothetical events I conjure, I may now remind them that our Government spent years funding a project to blow up the Moon.  Unlikely and unexpected events abound in our lives.  We need to plan — perhaps not using our Living Trusts and Wills to address interplanetary nuclear excursions — but instead to account for the unlikely challenges which may arise in our families and business affairs.  In the meantime, enjoy the Moon while we still have it.

Resolutions, But Why Now?

Resolutions, But Why Now?

Welcome to 2023.  New Year.  New Beginnings.  New Promises.  For many, the New Year represents a time and place to wipe the slate clean, begin anew, and try to do better.  The vast majority of us seek to assist ourselves in these endeavors with New Year’s Resolutions.  We can make resolutions at any time.  Yet, our custom and practice remains to reflect on our own self, candidly acknowledge our successes and limitations, and then resolve to change or improve on behaviors with the New Year.

But why January 1?  Of course, as with so many of our traditions and customs, the origins rest with religion.  At the beginning of each year, the Romans would make promises to the god Janus, for whom the month of January is named.  The Roman god Janus is depicted with two faces always placed in opposite direction of each other.  Janus could simultaneously see the past and provide vision for the future.  As such, he was the gateway god associated with doorways, passageways and opportunities.  “Janus” literally translates to “arched passage, doorway”.  With insight to what has been and what may come, Janus symbolizes the beginning and end, as well as war and peace.  More importantly, Janus represents transitions from youth to adulthood, life to death, and light to darkness.    

Stressed in worshipping Janus for transitions would be the beginnings.  The Romans sought the blessing or approval of Janus for a new cause or circumstance.  Temples built to honor Janus are not found, but gates and entranceways abound with his image.  Opportunity awaits on the other side of the gate.  Changes lie ahead on the other side of the passageway.  Janus is the god of change and possibility.  For divine approval and support for a Roman’s resolutions for new beginnings, Janus was THE guy.

Fast forward to Medieval times, at the conclusion of the Christmas Season corresponding with the New Year, knights’ resolutions included renewal of their vows and commitment to chivalry.  At about the same time, Christian churches began using New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day liturgical services for the Covenant Renewal Service.  Congregants would prepare for the upcoming year through prayer and making resolutions.  Watchnight Services at Christmas and New Years would incorporate religious resolutions by the congregants.

Use of New Year’s resolutions became a staple among organized religions through the centuries.  Indeed, in the early 1900’s, a postcard with the following resolution message could be sent as a reminder to your closest friends and loved ones:

Wow!  I would need to spend the vast majority of each day just attempting to remember what I resolved to do and refrain from doing with that resolution.

New Year’s Resolutions crossed over to secular society along the way.  By 1813, the term “New Year’s Resolution” first appeared in a Boston, Massachusetts newspaper.  In fact, the concept of New Year’s Resolutions was so well entrenched by this time that the Boston paper described the resolution process skeptically as follows: “There are multitudes of people, accustomed to receive injunction of the new year resolutions, who will sin all the month of December, with a serious determination of beginning the new year with new resolutions and new behaviour, and with the full belief that they shall thus expiate and wipe away all their former faults.”

At about the same time in the early 1800s, Walker’s Hibernian Magazine recognized that most failed to follow through on resolutions and published a list of resolutions some have solemnly pledged to keep.  Those satiric resolutions included Statesmen resolving to have no other object in view than the good of the country; and Physicians resolving to be very moderate in their fees.  Apparently, some things just do not change, even with a few centuries of resolutions.

Resolution Statistics

At the end of the Great Depression, approximately one quarter of Americans made some type of New Year’s Resolution.  That percentage slowly, but steadily, increased to almost 50% of Americans making such annual resolutions by the year 2000.  52% of us firmly believe that our resolutions will succeed when we make them.  However, the actual success rate is closer to 12%.  

With success so unlikely, we should ask why we keep making resolutions.  I am no psychologist, but I do think that resolutions in some measure represent hope and faith in ourselves.  In making a resolution, we have already noted a trait or condition in our own self which we want to change.  In and of itself, that process is growth.  We know we may not succeed in carrying out the resolution, but we achieve a heightened awareness regarding the actions and conduct we strive to alter.  We have the opportunity to avoid such circumstances in the future.  You may not have lost all the weight in your resolution, but perhaps you started on an improved exercise routine.

The one statistic which stood out for me is that 46% of people are more likely to succeed in achieving a goal when tied to a resolution than those with no resolution.  Groups have been studied with weight loss and quitting smoking on this issue.  For those who combined a stated goal (e.g., lose ten pounds) with a resolution to succeed, there existed an almost 50% increase in the success rate when compared with others who merely put forth a stated goal without a resolution.  A resolution is a promise to ourselves and even third parties.  There exists motivation with a resolution which otherwise is absent from the equation.  Maybe guilt in not achieving the resolution plays a part.  Whatever the reasons, resolutions undeniably assist us.

We have a New Year with 2023.  Join the 50% of Americans and make resolutions if not already undertaken.  The simple step of reducing a promise to yourself to a resolution already places you on the path for a greater chance of success.  Who knows, even your own Janus is out there working on new beginnings for you.  

In Estate Planning, some clients have difficulty discussing or entertaining the concept of their own demise.  Even the word “death” casts a chill on the process as the finality associated with death is their very own.  Perhaps Janus can assist with more than resolutions and serve as a reminder that with change (I.e., death), a new beginning can dawn for those for whom the client wants to provide.  We can look forward to possibilities and not back to our own Earthly demise.

Good luck with your New Year’s Resolutions and Happy New Year!