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The U.S. military's actual plan for a moon base

Everyone is up a tizzy now about the possibility of an actual Space Corps, the sixth branch of the military. But this isn't America's first pass at space occupation. The Army and Air Force launched two separate studies in the late 1950s about establishing a base on the moon and permanently occupying it.


The proposed U.S. Army Moon base in 1965, near the end of construction. (Illustration: U.S. Army Project Horizon)

Since America ultimately won the first round of the Space Race, it's easy to forget that the Soviet Union spent years firmly in the lead. It launched the first man-made satellite in 1957 and landed the first man-made object on the moon in 1959.

So the U.S. looked quickly for a way to catch up. The CIA was stealing technology as quickly as it could, Eisenhower ordered the creation of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (now DARPA), and the Army and Air Force got to work planning moon bases.

While it may sound odd today, both military studies took it as a given that someone would occupy the moon relatively soon and that it should be America — even if there wasn't a firm plan yet on what to do with it.

(Illustration: U.S. Army Project Horizon)

The Army said:

The primary objective is to establish the first permanent manned installation on the moon. Incidental to this mission will be the investigation of the scientific, commercial, and military potential of the moon.

The Air Force was more direct, saying, "The decision on the types of military forces to be installed at the lunar base can be safely deferred for 3 to 4 years provided a military lunar base program is initiated immediately."

But both services did have their own plans on what to do with it, even if they were relatively hazy ideas in the far future.

Both services wanted to use the moon base as a point for intercepting Soviet signals, an idea partially proven by the 1948 detection of air defense radar signals bouncing off the moon and later by "ELINT" which detected cutting-edge Soviet radar technology via lunar reflection.

A space station would serve as a midway point for many missions to the moon under the Army plan. The Air Force plan called for direct flights from the Earth to lunar surface. (Illustration: U.S. Army Project Horizon)

The Army and Air Force were both interested in using the moon as an observation platform from which to watch activity in the Soviet Union.

But the most surprising proposed use of the moon base came from the Air Force, which twice mentioned the possibility of a "Lunar Based Earth Bombardment System," a weapon projected to be accurate within 2-5 nautical miles.

The study doesn't go into detail on what ordnance the LBEBS would use, but...pretty much the only weapon that can destroy an enemy installation by landing within five miles of it is a nuke.

When it came to planning the construction of the base, both services focused on their strong points.

(Illustration: U.S. Army Project Horizon)

The Army, used to building large and complex bases around the world while under fire or during other adverse conditions, wrote up a detailed plan on how a 12-man team could bury modular containers three feet under the surface to establish a base for them to live in. They would use a special tractor and other excavation equipment to do so. It even planned out potential meals.

The Army does spend a few dozen pages discussing how to get everything to the moon, but is counting on nuclear-powered Saturn rockets to carry the heavy payloads. While the U.S. has tested nuclear-powered rocket engines a few times, it's never made the jump to actually constructing one.

The Air Force, meanwhile, spends a lot of time and energy discussing how to send automated rocket flights with equipment payloads to specific points on the surface for later construction. But the study essentially kicks the can down the road when it comes to assembling those payloads into a functioning base.

A nuclear power plant was slated to power each base.

The Army's plan called for regular flights to and from the moon in cramped capsules. (Illustration: U.S. Army Project Horizon)

The timelines for the projects were ambitious, to say the least. The Air Force called for an operational lunar base by June 1969. In reality, Neil Armstrong first stepped foot on the moon a month later, almost two years after the Air Force's projection for the first manned mission.

The Army was even more optimistic, envisioning that the first people would reach the moon in 1965 and that the first outpost would be fully-functioning by the end of 1966.

Instead, here we are in the new millennium without a single moon base. The Space Corps is going to be busy playing catch up if it ever actually gets formed.

You can see all the studies at the links below:

Air Force Lunar Expedition Plan

Air Force Military Lunar Base Program

Army Lunar Outpost Summary and Supporting Consideration

Army Lunar Outpost Technical Considerations & Plans