The U.S. Air Force planned to stop the rotation of the Earth during the Cold War

During the Cold War, when nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union seemed inevitable, the U.S. Air Force explored an unusual defense strategy. They were considering stopping the Earth’s rotation for a moment to bypass Soviet missiles flying across the North Pole to their missile fields in North and South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana and Missouri. This suggestion was made by an officer who envisioned that by stopping the earth’s rotation for a moment, Soviet missiles would bypass or fly over targets that had been targeted for strike on their inertial path. Our ground retaliatory forces would be saved to strike back against cities and unprotected military targets in the Soviet Union.

This defense strategy surprised and shocked many scholars and experts. Daniel Ellsberg, a strategic analyst at the RAND Corporation who has studied these plans, told in his 2017 book, Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, that it would require 2.6 x 10 21 kg of fuel, about 500 times the mass of Earth’s atmosphere. Assuming you can build that many engines, once you run them for the time it takes to change the Earth’s rotation, you will release 500 times as much gas into the atmosphere, all with incredibly hot combustion products.

Even if your targets survived a nuclear war, they would all be incinerated by all the exhaust spreading across the planet. This suggestion was not only insane, but also dangerous for life on Earth.

If the U.S. Air Force implemented this plan, it could have had catastrophic consequences for the planet. The Earth’s rotation is slowed and accelerated by various factors, including earthquakes, and if the Earth suddenly stopped, it would be a different matter. Water, rocks, and other debris would fly eastward at 1,610 kilometers per hour (1,000 miles per hour), tearing up the surface and sending new fragments of Earth and rocks into the atmosphere and space.

This proposal was rejected, and we can be thankful for that. However, it reminds us of what crazy and dangerous ideas can arise in the face of global tension and conflict.

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