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Project Horizon: America’s Military Outpost on the Moon

Do you ever get the sense that humanity isn’t quite where we thought it would be? Yes I know 2020 has thrown up some truly global dilemmas that will most likely set us back a little, but weren’t we supposed to be a little further ahead as we entered the third decade of the new millennium?

Where are the flying cars and those little hoverboards from Back to the Future? Where is interplanetary space travel for humans? But the question that we’re focusing on today, didn’t we all think we would have a base on the moon by now? While of course, we’ve never even come close to establishing a colony, or even a temporary base on the moon, that doesn’t mean there haven’t been specific plans for it. 

It’s probably no surprise that we need to travel back in time to the depths of the Cold War for this radical and wildly ambitious idea – known as Project Horizon. 

A Moon Base   

Illustration Future Moon base
Illustration Future Moonbase by Liquifer Systems Group, 2018 is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Humans have been staring up at the moon for as long as we have existed, and for a good portion of that time, we had absolutely no idea what it really was. Like the sun, and the visible planets, the moon found a place in ancient mythology and was even considered a god to some. 

Slowly we began to understand exactly what it is and in the early 17th Century Galileo Galilei’s telescopes revealed a rough, rocky surface – not exactly like Earth, but not entirely unlike it either. 

It was also around this time that we have the first written reference about the possibility of some kind of settlement on the moon. Three hundred and thirty-one years before Apollo 11 touched down on the surface of our celestial neighbour, Bishop John Wilkins penned a piece entitled A Discourse Concerning a New World and Another Planet, in which he predicted we would one day not only send people to the moon but establish some kind of colony. 

Fast forward to the 1950s and the world was slowly emerging from the shellshock that was World War II. We had created, and deployed, the most terrifying weapon ever known and for the first time in human existence, a small group of people had the power to destroy the world in the blink of an eye. 

Perhaps with this in mind, our gaze began to shift skywards. Now, we all know what came next – Sputnik, Yuri Gagarin, Neil Armstrong – and of course one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind. Surely, humans were on the precipice of something extraordinary – surely we would be living on the moon in no time at all. So what happened? 

Project Horizon

Project Horizon was a study commissioned by the U.S government in 1959 to explore the feasibility of building a manned base on the moon. At this point, the Department of the Army, Department of the Navy, and Department of the Air Force held joint responsibility for the U.S. space program. 

The paper, titled ‘Project Horizon, A U.S. Army Study for the Establishment of a Lunar Military Outpost’ first appeared on 8th June 1959, and its stated aims read,

The lunar outpost is required to develop and protect potential United States interests on the moon; to develop techniques in moon-based surveillance of the earth and space, in communications relay, and in operations on the surface of the moon; to serve as a base for exploration of the moon, for further exploration into space and for military operations on the moon if required; and to support scientific investigations on the moon.

Quite a jumble there but they were obviously trying to cover as many bases as possible and as you might imagine with the kind of departments involved, Project Horizon certainly had a military feel to it. But sadly this was as far as it went with President Eisenhower rejecting the project and instead placing his faith in the civilian agency NASA by transferring almost all space programs to it. 

Project Horizon was at that time highly classified, and it remained that way until 2014 when it was finally declassified. And though nothing ever came of it, the report is astonishing in both its scale and imagination, but was is really interesting is the sense of urgency, perhaps best encapsulated by the section that reads, 

To be second to the Soviet Union in establishing an outpost on the moon would be disastrous to our nation’s prestige and in turn to our democratic philosophy

Make no mistake about it, among some at least, this was a plan of the utmost urgency.

Operational Concept 

Now it must be said that much of the report is quite entertaining. There is a wonderfully casual vagueness to much of it. How exactly were they going to build nuclear reactors on the moon, for example? It’s important to remember that the scientists who wrote this paper knew that the technology was not available at the time, but they felt certain it would be coming shortly. Seventy years later and we’re still waiting. 

But those scientists predicted that the base could be set up by 1965, and fully operational by the following year – with 12 soldiers stationed there. That was just 7 years from when they released the paper. If you think about how long everything seems to take these days, it’s extraordinary they believed it could all be accomplished so quickly.  

The initial landing would have included just two men in April 1965, who would then be guided to a depot area where the build-up of equipment had already begun. This would have been done by a series of cargo deliveries that would start in January 1965 and would have totalled 61 Saturn A-1 and 88 Saturn A-2 rocket launches up until the end of 1966. These trips would have transported 220 tonnes of cargo to the Moon – that’s roughly the weight of two blue whales. 

Key to the entire operation would be what I can only refer to as space tractors, but the report calls lunar vehicles. These vehicles would provide a dazzling array of purposes for the men on the moon, including 

  • Moving of lunar material
  • Excavation of subsurface trenches
  • Heavy cargo handling
  • Prime mover functions

Oh, and they would also be where those two poor souls slept while they slaved away to build a moon base in record-breaking time – around 6 months the scientists envisioned. 

They were also quite descriptive about exactly how the base would look. The outpost would be cylindrical metal tanks 3 metres (10 ft) in diameter and 6.1 metres (20 ft) in length with special double-walled “thermos bottle type” vacuum tanks and special insulating material in the space between the walls. The living quarters would be sunk into the ground to provide a warmer temperature within. 

As I briefly mentioned earlier, the moon base would be powered by nuclear reactors – four of them to be precise, two of which would be housed in the same building as the soldiers. Considering what an absolute nightmare radiation poisoning can be, I would have loved to have seen how they worked around that one. 

The report estimated the total cost of Project Horizon over an eight and a half year period would be $6 billion ($53.5 billion today) or $700 million ($6.2 billion) per year. Though the wording was done so in a way that vast overspending wouldn’t exactly have been a surprise. 

Daily Life in the Moon Base

Each man on the base would receive ‘three quarts of water per day’ (2.8 litres), but they theorised that through recycling this could be lowered. Ideally, they would use water either already on the moon or that could be captured through the atmosphere for washing and cleaning. Something they probably would have struggled with had the project ever gone ahead. 

The majority of the food would come in dehydrated form, but the report makes special mention about the importance of vegetables and how a hydroponic area to grow them could be quickly established. 

This would use human waste as nutrients and eventually plant waste and algae could be used to feed poultry. Yes, along with local organic vegetables there would also be chickens and fish. The report even goes as far as recommending two varieties that they should take – daphnia and mollusc – both of which feed on algae.  

When the soldiers stepped out of the base they would be fully kitted out in a spacesuit not entirely dissimilar to the early suits used in the Apollo missions, except for one important difference. For whatever reason, images included in the report seem to have the astronauts wearing some kind of ice skates. It’s probably safe to assume this was not a style factor and if anything shows just how limited the understanding about the surface of the moon was at the time. 

A medical facility would also be included that would come with a self-isolation chamber, where those suffering from psychiatric episodes could be placed. No doubt scientists were not exactly sure what the effects of space travel and being away from the Earth for so long might be, and they were preparing for every eventuality. The chamber would come with its own toilet, a bed, a door and a window that could both be locked from the outside – which sounds just charming.       

Space Wars

No sooner had the base been set, it would be supplied with weapons to defend it from a Soviet overland invasion. Not only do I love the absurdity of it all, but to go as far as to assume that the Soviets would be in a position to launch a small army then start a war on the moon is just brilliant. 

The base would be defended by unguided Davy Crockets, which were tactical nuclear recoilless weapons, and Claymore mines, which were anti-personnel mines that could be placed around the perimeter. 

The Future

As I said much earlier in the video, Project Horizon got no further than that one report published in 1959. There have been numerous ideas, concepts and theories over the years but our wait for a moon base goes on. It is becoming increasingly likely that the first manned settlement on the moon might, in fact, be privately funded rather than government-run – or perhaps a hybrid of the two.  

The Moon Village was an idea that emerged in 2015 which encouraged international public and private investors, scientists, engineers, universities, and businessmen to work together to develop some kind of settlement on the moon. Both the U.S and China have stated their interest, but the project remains an open forum concept. 

Johann-Dietrich Wörner, DLR Chairman , by
DLR German Aerospace Center
is licensed under CC-BY

Jan Wörner, Director General of the European Space Agency, has said that the village would be “an understanding, not a single facility”. He went on to add that this would be an important first step for us to come together as a species and develop our knowledge. Considering how divided we seem to be in 2020, I would say we still have a long way to go.   

As for Project Horizon. When you read through the declassified report from 70 years it is hard not to have a little chuckle. Some of the ideas stated sound so outlandish you find it difficult to imagine they came from expert scientific minds of the time. 

But maybe the problem wasn’t actually with the scientists back in the late 1950s, maybe it’s with humanity in the 21st Century. The second half of the last century saw unimaginable changes in everything from space travel to communication, from home comforts to transportation – but there is an argument that our technological advances have narrowed and plateaued. We have state of the art smartphones seemingly released every month, but is this really changing the world? Are we still pushing the boundaries of innovation and exploration?

In 1959 a group of scientists felt confident enough that a moon base could be established in just 7 years. Call them ambitious, call them absurd – but that was some truly visionary thinking. Perhaps today we could do with a few more absurdly ambitious projects like this, to push humanity forward once more. A moon base feels like something we are destined for at some point. And despite our slow, erratic path to it, surely it’s a question of when and not if.    

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