Necessity is often said to be the mother of invention, and fear often triggers the necessity to stop whatever had caused it. The Cold War was one of the most fear-inducing stretches of human history – as in pants-soiling scary at times, with two jittery superpowers glaring at each other while armed with enough nukes to wipe out humanity many times over. So the era saw its fair share – and more – of inventions to address, combat, and foil the causes of that fear.
Thing though is that fear sometimes drives the fearful to not just think outside the box, but to get carried away with their outside-the-box thinking. As in way, way, away in the “creative” ideas department. As with most ideas, some of them turn out to be brilliant brainstorms, but many more turn out to be brain farts. Of the latter, few ideas were crazier than that hatched up to foil Soviet nukes by stopping the Earth’s rotation.
Stopping the Earth’s rotation sounds crazy – and it was. However, there was actually a method to the madness and a kernel of logic involved. To launch an ICBM and get its warhead to accurately nuke a target thousands of miles away involves intricate calculations, not least among them planetary rotation. If one could tinker with Earth’s rotation, one could screw up those intricate calculations, and cause ballistic missiles to miss their targets. Thus was born PROJECT RETRO, an early 1960s research effort into what it would take to pause the planet’s spinning.
The project was worthy of Wile E. Coyote in that, like many of his schemes, the science actually works in theory. Once launched, the Cold War’s early ballistic missiles could not be redirected. Because of Earth’s rotation, to hit something with a ballistic missile is like shooting an arrow at a mobile target. In both cases, the shooter has to aim not at where the target is, but at where the target will be in the time it takes the missile or arrow to get there. PROJECT RETRO hoped to ensure that the ICBMs’ targets would not be there when their warheads detonated.
To illustrate the logic of PROJECT RETRO, picture an ICBM that takes 30 minutes to fly from the Soviet Union to New York City. The Soviets would their missile not at where NYC is at the time of launch, but at where the Big Apple will be, because of the Earth’s rotation, in 30 minutes. However, if a moving target ceases to move after a projectile such as a missile is launched, the result will be a miss. So the United States Air Force floated the idea of using rocket engines to stop the Earth from moving.
Specifically, planners contemplated the use of a “a huge rectangular array of one thousand first-stage Atlas engines” to stop the Earth from moving. In theory, such a crazy Looney Tunes plan could foil Soviet ICBMs. Accordingly, the Air Force set out to test the theory’s feasibility. In 1960, the RAND Corporation with asked to evaluate whether giant stationary rocket engines might be used to pause Earth’s rotation in case of nuclear attack. As seen below, while there was something to the theory, going from theory to practice was… problematic.
The US Air Force’s spitball guesstimate that a thousand rocket engines could pause the Earth’s rotation turned out to be too low. As Daniel Ellsberg, a RAND Corporation planner who crunched the numbers concluded, it required not a thousand Atlas rockets, but “one million billion” of them. The rocket fuel necessary would have been “500 times the mass of Earth’s atmosphere”. That was beyond even the Pentagon’s budget. And even if Pentagon could afford it, to pause the planet’s spin would have produced results far worse than if all the Soviet nukes had hit their targets.
Assume a 30 minute ICBM flight time from Russia to New York City, and a 20 minute warning. For the missile to miss by 10 miles, Earth’s rotation would have to be slowed by about 30 miles for 20 minutes. If that happened, every structure, grain of sand, drop of water, and living thing on the planet would experience that deceleration. The result would be shattering earthquakes, massive tsunamis, and super hurricanes – all beyond anything ever recorded in human history – wreaking havoc across the planet. A nuclear Armageddon would actually be mild compared to that.
1. An Extra-Terrestrial Attack Could Have Stopped the Cold War
President Ronald Reagan was the Happy Cold Warrior. A staunch conservative and anticommunist, he went about with a sunny disposition and demeanor that did little to mask his implacable detestation of communism and opposition of the Soviet Union. His single-minded focus on challenging what he termed “The Evil Empire”, and dragging the USSR into an arms buildup competition that its rickety economy could not sustain, contributed greatly to the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union. However, there was one field where he was more than happy to cooperate with the Soviets.
As Mikhail Gorbachev recounted, he was strolling around a garden with Reagan during the 1985 Geneva Summit, when the POTUS blurted out of the blue: “What would you do if the United States were suddenly attacked by someone from outer space? Would you help us?” Gorbachev replied that the Soviets would help us out against ET. That greatly pleased the American president – apparently, the threat of alien attack had been gnawing at Reagan, a lifelong sci-fi nerd, for years. So turns out that extraterrestrials might have united humanity to stop the Cold War in order to face a common enemy.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading