spaceSpace and Physics

The Cold War Created Some Absolutely Crazy Plans For Space Innovation


Tom Hale


Tom Hale

Senior Journalist

Tom is a writer in London with a Master's degree in Journalism whose editorial work covers anything from health and the environment to technology and archaeology.

Senior Journalist

A Soviet poster from 1965: "Our triumph in space is the hymn to Soviet country!" Flickr/Keijo Knutas CC BY-NC 2.0

Sure, the world might have been under the constant threat of a nuclear apocalypse, but the Cold War was a great time for space.

Driven by the rivalry between the capitalist West and the communist Eastern Bloc, the scientific exploration of space was funded like never before. We sent satellites to orbit Earth, tortoises went around the Moon, and 12 humans set foot on the Moon. We even played golf up there.


Within these strange and paranoid times, there were also a lot of totally insane plans that never came to fruition, primarily because they were so totally insane (and that's not even talking about the Space Race's animal missions).

A-Bombing The Moon

One of the most startling plans involved nuking the Moon. Around June 1959, the US military hatched a plan to drop a small W25 nuclear warhead on the Moon for the purposes of weapons testing and gaining insight into the lunar environment. However, there was another motive: flexing muscles. The Americans wanted to drop the bomb directly on the Moon’s terminator, the division between the illuminated and shadowed parts, hoping it would be visible from Earth and, more to the point, Moscow.

Fortunately, this was one of the many plans that never happened. At the time, however, it had a team of scientists working on it, one of whom was a young Carl Sagan.


The Soviet’s Death Star

Spacecraft shooting each other with laser guns sounds like an old James Bond film, but the USSR and the US came remarkably close to making this a reality.

During the 1970s and 1980s, the Soviets set about designing Polyus-Skif, an unmanned orbital weapons platform that was equipped with a carbon-dioxide laser designed to destroy enemy US satellites. By 1986, it was bumped up to a high-priority satellite and launched into orbit a year later.

Thankfully, there was a pretty big screw up and the satellite failed to reach orbit. With the Cold War cooling down and the Soviet economy in stagnation, the USSR had little interest in rebooting the plan.

This artist's concept depicts the Space Station Freedom (text below) as it would look orbiting the Earth, illustrated by Marshall Space Flight Center artist Tom Buzbee. NASA/Tom Buzbee

Putting A Copper Ring Around Earth

Project Needles, officially known as Project West Ford, was another batsh*t plan that came slightly closer to completion. The Air Force and Department of Defense decided to put 480,000,000 tiny copper wires into orbit to form a ring around Earth (just like Saturn’s rings), with the aim of helping their long-range communications.

Between 1961 and 1963, they launched a series of attempts to bump these needles into orbit. However, the plan eventually lost momentum when budgets and attention moved on to more grounded issues. Even so, there are still a few dozen clumps of these needles in orbit to this day.

Space Station Freedom


Not all of the Cold War’s ambitions were total ego-fueled failures. Through the latter half of the 1980s, the US was busy working on a bold plan to build a giant, permanently crewed, super-futuristic space station called Space Station Freedom. Ronald Reagan even announced plans for Space Station Freedom in the 1984 State of the Union address.

Space Station Freedom is what you imagine a space station to be like: spaceports, multiple labs, living quarters, an observatory, sick bays, satellite repair facilities, you name it.

However, politicians began to doubt the project and worried it was too expensive by the early 1990s. Equally, the Cold War had come to an end, meaning the days of “one-upmanship” were over. Nevertheless, the project ultimately laid the groundwork for the International Space Station – a structure that costs a mere $100 billion.


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