MIGHTY HISTORY

America wanted to stop Earth's rotation during Cold War

A book from a nuclear whistleblower has a stunning claim that the U.S. Air Force once had a plan to throw off Soviet missiles by stopping the rotation of the earth with a thousand rockets.

Yup, the Wile E. Coyote missile defense plan which, theoretically, could have worked.


Like this, but with fewer spectators and tires. And more rockets.

(NASA)

First, the qualifications: The allegation comes from Daniel Ellsberg who worked for RAND from 1960 to 1970 and says he saw the plans before he left the corporation. Basically, it called for 1,000 rocket engines laid horizontally on the Earth's surface that would fire when missiles were in flight towards America. His claim is the only evidence that remains. He said he stole documents, but they were lost years later.

The plan was in early stages when Ellsberg saw it, and it seems to have gone nowhere. But, in the most limited sense, the science does kind of work. Before cruise missiles became all the rage, nearly all nuclear threats were limited to ballistic missiles and bombers. When it comes to ballistic missiles, they have no guidance after a certain point in the flight; some can't be redirected after takeoff because they used solely inertial guidance.

So imagine if you shot an arrow at a moving target and then someone stopped the target from moving while the arrow was already in flight. You would likely miss since, you know, target moved. So far, so good.

But the rest of the science isn't so great.

Can you change earth's rotation with rockets - Project Retro

First of all, rockets laid against the ground would be pushing against the atmosphere, and the earth is much, much denser than the atmosphere. So most of the energy would accelerate the atmosphere rather than slow the rotation of the earth.

Even with a thousand of America's most powerful rockets pushing at once, it's likely that U.S. cities would be in basically the exact same spot. A YouTuber who plugged the numbers into some simulations found that the rotation would only slow enough to shift the target's position so minutely that you couldn't even measure it with conventional tools. Like, the missiles would only miss by the width of a couple of atoms. Not enough to save a single human life.

And then there's the fact that, even if the rockets offset the cities' positions by hundreds of yards or even a few miles, that would only shift the pain. The missiles would still impact on the east side of the city or just east of the city. For New York, the missile would explode over the ocean instead of the city. But east of Philadelphia is still New Jersey. East of Atlanta is still Georgia, east of Dallas is still Texas.

But the more success the rockets have in shifting the city's position, the worse another problem is. Everything on earth experiences the earth's inertia, we just can't feel it because it's always there. But if the earth's inertia suddenly slowed or even stopped, we would experience it like the earth was suddenly moving.

Ballistic missiles coming from Russia would take something like 30 minutes from launch to impact, but the U.S. wouldn't necessarily know the missile was in flight for the first few minutes. So, if we give the rockets 20 minutes of time to shift the planet's rotation 11 miles, the distance needed to keep a missile aimed at western Washington D.C. from hitting the city, the rockets would have to slow the planet's rotation by 33 mph for that entire 20 minutes. (But the nukes would still hit the suburbs.)

Imagine a model of a city sitting on top of a car, then imagine accelerating the car to 33 mph as fast as you could, driving it for 20 minutes, and then coasting to a stop. And the city isn't built to withstand earthquakes.

And every human and structure and animal and droplet of water in the world would experience this slowdown at once, not just the ones targeted by the missiles. But not all tectonic plates would experience it exactly the same. Assuming the rockets would all have been placed in the U.S., the North American Plate would take all the stress.

​Pictured: Still not as bad as worldwide earthquakes and tsunamis.

(U.S. Department of Defense)

Where the plate borders other tectonic plates, this would certainly create earthquakes, potentially triggering tsunamis off the West Coast as well as deep within the Atlantic. Another fault line passes through the Caribbean south of Florida and it, too, would likely quake.

So, actual earthquakes and tsunamis would be triggered at the same time that every city in the world experiences a weird pseudo-quake as the rockets fire, and the oceans would slosh over continents, all so the missiles would land on the outskirts of a few dozen cities instead of the hearts of the cities.

The missiles are starting to not look so bad, huh? It seems likely that, if the Air Force ever did seriously consider this, it was like the nuclear moon bases. They wrote some papers, decided it was nonsense, and moved on. But then, they did make prototype nuclear-powered planes and rockets, so maybe not.

(Featured image by Kevin Gill CC BY 2.0)