Imagine a battle fought on the surface of the moon, not with laser beams but with gas-powered bullets and dart guns, as American soldiers in spacesuits defend an armed lunar base from invading Soviet soldiers. It may sound like bad science fiction, but these were real proposals put forth by the Pentagon during the 1950s and '60s, as Joseph Trevithick writes for War is Boring.
Years before Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, the U.S. Army Weapon Command's Future Weapons Office had been working on theoretical plans to turn deep space into a tactical advantage. At the time, the U.S. was running neck-and-neck alongside the Soviet space program—and the Soviets seemed like they might pull ahead at any moment. After all, the U.S.S.R. launched the first orbital satellite, the first animals to survive the journey through space and even the first man and women to orbit the Earth.
"Because of the entirely new and different environment and conditions facing man in space, we cannot wait until the eleventh hour to 'crash' a weapon program through with any hope of success, for we may even now be standing on the edge of the battleground of Armageddon," Army engineers from the Future Weapons Office wrote in a declassified report from 1965, which was titled "The Meanderings of a Weapon Oriented Mind When Applied in a Vacuum Such as on the Moon."
This theoretical exercise in weapons design wasn't the Pentagon’s attempt to weaponize the Space Age. As far back as 1959, Army researchers and engineers had proposed plans for a lunar military base to "develop and protect potential United States interests on the moon" as well as ways to transport troops around the world from orbit, Trevithick writes.
But, space-faring troops wouldn't be useful without weapons. There are two bigs problems with using conventional rifles and handguns in a vacuum: first, recoil in a low or zero-gravity environment could send a soldier off course; second, the extreme temperatures in space could cause a regular gun to either freeze or explode, rendering it useless in a fight, Trevithick writes. The Future Weapons Office report includes all sorts of wild concepts for weapons designed for space combat, like gas-powered "Sausage Guns" that could fire a swarm of projectiles without much recoil and a spring-loaded handgun that would launch rounds as fast as rifles in a vacuum.
Luckily, the space race has become friendlier over the last few decades. Today, space agencies are more worried detecting rogue asteroids; defending theoretical moonbases is far from a priority. In many ways, modern weaponry has become even stranger than the engineers at the Future Weapons Office might have imagined, though, with drones being adapted for nearly anything and military researchers developing laser weapons that can burn holes into enemy ships. None of the experimental space weapons ever made it past the drawing board, but they still provide a glimpse into a world that might have been.
For more on the Future Weapons Office and their theoretical armaments, check out Trevithick’s full article here.