Pigs in Space and Other Bizarre Experiments

Weird tales from the annals of science.



(Matt Hale)
It's summer, and you're looking for a good beach book. Perhaps a light romance, the latest thriller, or a celebrity bio. Not us. We want eccentric characters, irrational obsessions, and extreme experiments. And we've found the perfect fit: Author Alex Boese's new book Electrified Sheep: Glass-eating Scientists, Nuking the Moon, and More Bizarre Experiments, (Thomas Dunne Books, 2012). See the gallery above to read about some of the weirdest experiments ever conducted in the name of science.

Pierre and Marie Curie first isolated radium in their lab in 1902. This mysterious metal appeared to produce a limitless amount of energy. And where there is energy, medical entrepreneurs noted, there must be health! Physicians swung into action, promoting the beneficial effects of 'radiumizing' the body to an eager public. Retailers sold radium-treated water, describing the faintly glowing solution as 'liquid sunshine.' The radium craze persisted well into the 1930s. Marie Curie herself insisted on the metal's health benefits, maintaining this belief right up until 1934, when she died of overexposure to radiation.

A curious descendant of the invisible energy enthusiasm can even be found in a rather unlikely place—the Chinese space programme. Chinese scientists, from the very start of their space programme, have expressed great interest in the effect of cosmic rays on plants, hoping that such rays might produce Super Veggies to feed their growing population. At first they used high-altitude balloons to fly seeds up to the edge of space. Now seeds are taken aboard the Shenzhou spacecraft. The resulting crops, grown back on earth, are occasionally served in Shanghai restaurants. Space spuds, it's reported, taste more 'glutinous' than terrestrial varieties.

On 12 October 2005 the Shenzhou VI spacecraft blasted off carrying a particularly special cargo—40 grams of pig sperm to be exposed to cosmic rays. Whether or not the experiment generated positive results is unknown, because, after the initial announcement, a shroud of official state secrecy descended upon the mission. But maybe, somewhere on a farm in China, a giant, cosmic-ray-enhanced pig is rolling happily in the mud.

Sorry, China, but pigs have been cruising space since the 1970s, at the helm of the Swinetrek. From left to right: First Mate Piggy, Captain Link Hogthrob, and Dr. Julius Strangepork.


Thousands of men, women, and children suffered nervous breakdowns during the Battle of Britain in 1940, when German bombs rained down on British cities. To treat these existing cases, the military psychologists F.I. McLaughlin and W.M. Millar proposed the theory of 'deconditioning.' They would expose patients, in a safe environment, to the sounds that terrified them—air-raid sirens, rifle fire, and exploding bombs. Many patients were so on edge that the mere squeaking of a door sent them into a state of screaming panic, but repeated exposure to the offending sounds, the doctors hoped, would soon desensitize their fear response.

Because they had no audio equipment, McLaughlin and Millar first used a small portable field siren and 'an assortment of tin boxes and sticks' to simulate the sounds of war. These didn't generate much of a reaction from the patients. But then they obtained recordings of actual warfare made by BBC technicians who had placed microphones throughout the country during the German bombing campaigns. These recordings proved far more effective. In darkened hospital wards, at midnight, the doctors played the recordings of wailing sirens and rattling gunfire. Patients ran screaming from their rooms, but the doctors persisted. The repetition finally paid off.

In the United States, doctors weren't confronted by the problem of bomb-shocked civilians, as their European counterparts were. However, the American military did open a similar 'Battle Noise School' in the South Pacific, led by Commander Uno Helgessson, to rehabilitate battle-broken soldiers. Helgesson placed the nervous men in trenches, dugouts, and foxholes. Then, as described in the Manual of Emergency Treatment for Acute War Neuroses, he subjected them to 'mock strafing, land mine explosions and simulated dive bombing attacks.' Once deemed cured, the men were sent back out to fight. Statistics on the number of cures are unfortunately not available.

Stuka dive-bombers during the Blitzkrieg.


(Matt Hale)
Robert Goddard (on the campus of Clark University in 1916, above), the American pioneer of modern rocketry, first proposed exploding a bomb on the moon in 1919.

In 1916, at the age of thirty-four, Goddard was working as a physics teacher. In his spare time he designed rockets. The first rockets he built didn't get very high off the ground, but already he had grand plans. He envisioned shooting a rocket all the way to the moon, but he immediately recognized a problem. He would have no way of knowing if his rocket reached the moon. That's when the bomb idea occurred to him. If his rocket carried a bomb that detonated when it hit the lunar surface, the explosion might be visible to someone on earth watching through a large telescope.

After conducting experiments, Goddard determined that one-twentieth of a grain of flash powder produced light visible at two-and-a-quarter miles. From this he calculated that if his rocket carried 13.8 pounds of flash powder, it would create an explosion 'strikingly visible' to a telescope observer on earth.

Goddard described his research and flash-powder experiment in December 1919 in a short treatise titled 'A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes.' The publication generated enormous public interest, especially the idea of bombing the moon. He received letters from volunteers eager to be strapped aboard his rocket—would-be lunar suicide bombers.


(Matt Hale)
On 4 October 1957, the world learned the Soviet Union had placed a satellite in orbit, Sputnik 1. Less than a month later, on 3 November, the Soviets topped that achievement by successfully launching Sputnik 2, which carried the first living creature into space, a small dog named Laika.

American leaders believed their nation's global influence depended upon an international recognition of its technological superiority, but now that superiority had been yanked out from under them. The Americans feverishly speculated about what the Soviets might do next, and one ominous possibility suggested itself above all others. The Soviets were going to nuke the moon! And the Americans thought they knew exactly when it was going to happen—on 7 November 1957, the fortieth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. Coincidentally, a lunar eclipse was going to occur on that day, which would allow a lunar explosion to be far more visible.

As 7 November approached, near hysterical reports appeared in the media about the Soviet plan to nuke the moon. 'A Soviet rocket might already be en route to strike the moon with a hydrogen bomb,' warned the New York Times on 5 November. Soviet United Nations delegate Arkady Sobolev fuelled speculation by letting slip that Russia did indeed hope to commemorate the Bolshevik Revolution with a rocket to the moon. Dr Fred Whipple, director of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, reported he had heard rumours the rocket was already on the way.

The eclipse was going to be visible for half an hour over much of the Pacific, in an area extending from the Mariana Islands south of Japan to Hawaii. When 7 November arrived, and the earth's shadow slid over the moon, American astronomers trained their telescopes on the lunar surface, nervously looking for the flash of an atomic explosion. They waited and waited, but it never happened. The moon had been spared.

The Man in the Moon gets a capsule in the eye, in Georges Méliès' 1902 film A Trip to the Moon.


(Matt Hale)
The Soviet lunar nuke proved to be a non-event, but the realization that it could have happened, and might still happen, catalysed the United States into action. In May 1958, the U.S. Air Force commissioned a top-secret scientific study, code-named Project A119. For administrative purposes, it was given the innocuous title 'A Study of Lunar Research Flights.' Its true mission, however, was to determine the visibility and effects of a nuclear explosion on the moon.

The study was based at the Armour Research Foundation in Chicago. Leonard Reiffel, head of physics at the Foundation, led the research group. Assisting him were a team of top scientists, including the astronomer Gerard Kuiper and a twenty-three-year-old graduate student named Carl Sagan, who would later achieve fame as the host of the science TV series Cosmos.

The Air Force didn't give the researchers any details about when a lunar bomb drop might occur. It told them it wanted the detonation to be a surprise. It also gave them a few details about the size of the bomb, suggesting only that it would be about the size of the one dropped on Hiroshima. Based on that information, the Air Force wanted to know where the best place to drop the bomb would be, to ensure maximum visibility from the earth. It also wanted the researchers to come up with scientific justifications for such an experiment.

Sagan was given the job of modelling how a cloud of gas and dust would expand above the lunar surface. This was a prelude to determining the visibility of the explosion from the earth. Sitting at his desk, he imagined the detonation—a missile descending out of the blackness of space towards the grey lunar surface, followed by a blinding flash of light. Because the moon has almost no atmosphere, the explosion wouldn't form the characteristic mushroom cloud of a nuclear bomb on earth. Instead, the force would radiate in all directions at once. Huge amounts of dust would be blown up into space. Sagan reasoned that this dust cloud would be most visible if it formed at the edge of the moon, where the rays of the sun would illuminate it to dramatic effect.

The researchers studied the issue of bombing the moon for almost a year before issuing their final report in June 1959. The scientists were obviously uncomfortable with the idea of nuking the moon. The report began by acknowledging that it was beyond the scope of the study to consider the political wisdom of such an action, but nevertheless noted it might generate 'considerable negative reaction' around the world. But with this word of caution behind them, the researchers proceeded to do their duty by assessing the various kinds of scientific information such an event might yield. It was relatively slim pickings.

Thankfully, Project A119 never progressed beyond the stage of a scientific study. The Air Force shelved the project after concluding there was too much risk involved without enough reward.

Above, a December 29, 1968 image of the far side of the moon, taken from the Apollo 8 spacecraft.


(Matt Hale)
[In the late 1950s,] General Atomic submitted a proposal to the Defense Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), seeking funding for an atomic bomb spaceship. On 30 June 1958, ARPA awarded General Atomic a million-dollar contract for a 'feasibility study of a nuclear bomb propelled space vehicle.'

Project Orion [artist's concept, above] engineers thought big from the very beginning. Bigger was better, because it was easier for a gigantic ship to withstand the pounding of the atomic bombs. So their initial estimate was to build a 4,000-ton, 20-storey-high ship—about as big as a nuclear submarine. A 1,000-ton circular disc, the 'pusher-plate,' would absorb the energy of the explosions while protecting the occupants of the ship through a shock-absorbing mechanism. They calculated it would require 100 atomic bombs, detonated approximately one half-second apart, to lift this behemoth into orbit.

The moon would merely be the first stop on a ground tour of the solar system. The intrepid adventurers envisioned cruising over to Venus. With an atomic-powered spaceship the journey would only take a month. Then they would head over to Mars before blasting their way to Saturn and finally returning home. 'Saturn by 1970' became the rallying cry of the project.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about the Orion spaceship was that the engineers believed it could be built with technology that already existed in 1958. They knew how to build bombs, and they knew how to build giant structures such as aircraft carriers. Orion simply married the two forms of know-how.

Ultimately it was politics, not technical difficulties, that doomed Orion. The U.S. government formed NASA in 1958, with the expectation that it would assume control of all non-military space projects. However, NASA didn't want to be involved with Orion in any way. The idea of their astronauts sitting on top of a payload of nuclear weapons didn't appeal to the agency.