Like most unhappy young men, in my teenage years I went to war with the moon. Stumbling drunk out of boring parties late at night, I’d feel the thing glaring at me from its smug and lofty seat, indifferent and implacable, a faint sneer etched into its face. Looking into the moon means looking into the vertiginous hugeness of history: It’s the same lump of rock seen by kings and heroes for all those thousands of years; they all died, and you will too, but the moon carries on. Wolves howl; I ranted. Are you looking at me? Are you looking at me? The moon doesn’t care; it’s just a mirror, and in its surface we all look very small.
I wasn’t alone in my loathing of the moon. In 1958, at the height of the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union developed secret plans for an unprovoked nuclear strike against it.
Both operations—probably because of the cosmic sacrilege involved—were disguised with unassuming alphanumeric codenames instead of the usual mythological references or bombastic national abstractions: Project E-4 for the Soviet plan, Project A119 for the American (along with the euphemistic title “A study of lunar research flights”). In each case the idea was to transport an atomic weapon to the moon’s terminator, the twilight-line along its surface where lunar day meets night, and detonate it just after sunset on Earth. First a flash would spread across the dark lunar surface, briefly lighting up the contours of its craters; then an immense cloud of atomic fire and lunar dust would rise. In the absence of an atmosphere, there would be no mushroom cloud. Instead the explosion would have formed a slowly expanding sphere, catching the light of the sun as it grew, and providing an entertaining spectacle and a dire warning clearly visible to friends and enemies on Earth.