The Ten Most Ambitious Space Programs In HistoryS

Every space mission is exceedingly ambitious, but Jalopnik readers know ten that stand above the rest, even if they never got off the ground.


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When it comes to crazy, it’s hard to beat space programs. Couple huge spending budgets, physics degrees, and the boundlessness of space and people just start approving whatever idea comes their way. Power a spaceship with nuclear bombs? Sounds great! Shoot monkeys into space? Why not!

Still, we only had room for ten projects here on this list, including ones that did work and others that were quickly cancelled in the development stage.

Help us fill out the rest of your favorite insane-o space missions from modern history and the deeper past in Kinja below.

Photo Credit: NASA

The Ten Most Ambitious Space Programs In History

10.) Operation Nuke The Moon

Back in 1958, the US was smarting over Russia getting Sputnik up the year before. We needed something to boost morale and show the Russians how good we were at space stuff. Naturally, we came up with a program called Project A119, where we would detonate a nuclear bomb on the moon. Seriously.

It was supposed to boost US morale and demoralize the Soviets, and thankfully it never got out of the planning stage. They decided putting a person on the moon would be a better idea.

Suggested By: HopkinsonF1, Photo Credit: Armour Research Foundation 

The Ten Most Ambitious Space Programs In HistoryS

9.) Manned Venus Flyby

Back in the mid ‘60s, NASA was wondering what they should do after they go to the moon. One plan was to shoot a Saturn V rocket at Venus with some astronauts living and working in the empty shell of the booster for the year-long journey. The only reason it didn’t happen was because the government cut NASA funding in 1968.

Suggested By: Jayhawk Jake and ItshouldahadaV8Photo Credit: NASA 

The Ten Most Ambitious Space Programs In HistoryS

8.) Project Mercury

Before Apollo there was Gemini, and before Gemini there was Mercury. This was the first program that actually got an American into space (right after the Russians did it), using teletype machines and mainframe computers. That anyone made it off the ground is amazing.

Suggested By: WhiskeyGolfPhoto Credit: NASA 

The Ten Most Ambitious Space Programs In HistoryS

7.) Get To Neptune

For the past two decades NASA has been working on the idea of getting an orbiter around Neptune on solar power. This is a challenge as Neptune is rather far away and there really isn’t much sunlight over there. One plan, described by shortyoh, is to use Radioisotopic and inflatable solar power, which is so far beyond my intellectual pay grade that I’m just going to link to shortyoh’s description and this NASA study. My brain hurts just looking at it.

Suggested By: shortyoh, Photo Credit: NASA 

The Ten Most Ambitious Space Programs In History

6.) Soviet Manned Mars/Venus Mission

When America announced it would put a man on the moon, Russia was like ‘oh shit, we better do something even more insane.” Naturally, they decided to see if they could fly a man past Mars instead. TAKE THAT AMERICA.

The first flight was supposed to run from 1971 to 1974, just swinging a dude past Mars to say hello. The second plan was to get no less than five nuclear-powered landers on the Martain surface and they would be carrying a nuclear powered Mars Train to drive around for a year. This plan was proposed in 1960, when Khrushchev was busy slamming his shoe on the UN. The third plan was to swing past Mars and then go loop around to Venus. I mean, why not go to another planet? The cosmonauts are already up there, how hard can it be?

The final plan, devised in 1966, was to send a crew of three cosmonauts to Mars using nuclear electric propulsion and have them hang out there for 30 days. The huge Soviet N1 rocket never really worked, so all the programs got scrapped.

Suggested By: Jason Torchinsky, Photo Credit: Wikipedia/KillOrDie

The Ten Most Ambitious Space Programs In History

5.) Apollo Follow-Up: Moon Base

In 1968, NASA started to wonder, what the hell they were going to do with all the surplus equipment from the Apollo missions. They thought about leaving everything in the back of the garage, hoping that Congress wouldn't notice it, but instead they had a much better idea: build a moon base! It would start with small extensions of existing components, then slowly build up more permanent lunar shelters. NASA’s funding then got cut, killing the program like their Venus flyby.

Suggested By: Jason Torchinsky, Photo Credit: NASA 

The Ten Most Ambitious Space Programs In HistoryS

4.) Soviet Missions To Mars

You thought it was crazy that the Soviets thought about going to Mars in the 1960s? They had plans back in 1956 for a Martian Piloted Complex to do the same thing. They wanted to use 25 Saturn V-size rockets to launch a six-cosmonaut crew in 1975. We assume somebody high up realized this was never going to happen and cancelled the project fairly quickly.


Suggested By: Jason Torchinsky, Photo Credit: unnatural.ro 

The Ten Most Ambitious Space Programs In HistoryS

3.) Project Orion, Nuclear Bomb Propulsion

Born in the mid 1950s, the idea was to propel a spacecraft by having it ride on a wave of atomic bomb explosions. Again, this was a serious study, cut short by the 1963 ban on above-ground nuclear testing. Before that ban, the US did indeed test nuclear propulsion and attempted (possibly successfully, possibly not) to shoot a piece of steel into space using a nuclear explosion. Welcome to Crazytown, population: NASA.


Suggested By: Jason Torchinsky and chromaticrabbit, Photo Credit: NASA 

The Ten Most Ambitious Space Programs In HistoryS

2.) Gemini

Reader f86sabre sums up very nicely why the buildup to our mission to the moon was just as bonkers as the final product.

Most everything Apollo did was based off of what we learned over 10 Gemini flights in 2 years. We learned about long duration flights with guys spending up to 2 weeks in these little tin cans, we figured out extra vehicular activity and rendezvous and docking. We also trained most of the guys who went to the moon on these missions. Buzz Aldrin pretty much invented the tools and techniques for spacewalks during this program after Ed White had all his problems during his walk. Apollo would not have been possible without the rendezvous and docking research. This was all done with only Mercury to look back on for guidance. Gemini was a huge step forward.

Suggested By: f86sabre, Photo Credit: NASA 

The Ten Most Ambitious Space Programs In HistoryS

1.) Apollo

Much as we love nuclear propulsion, we have to give a tip of the hat to the program that worked. Reader TheCrudMan explains why.

Less than ten years to manned flights to the moon and back with 1960s tech (I mean, think about the cars). If you didn't have a tool or part you needed you had to invent it, test it, and put it into production. Now do that five million times all while not losing sight of the bigger picture.

Nothing off the shelf here, and zillions of different steps in the process. Didn't know if something can be done?  Like, say, docking?  Better get some guys up there to do it. Think about the complexity of the final product, from the absurdly massive (even a rocket, this doesn't get said often enough) Saturn V rocket, to the guidance computer, to the design challenges with making the LEM light weight enough. It was an absurdly complex endeavor requiring innovation from the smallest screw to the largest rocket engine.  

Suggested By: TheCrudMan, Photo Credit: NASA