I'm working on a backstory for a science fiction setting and one of the factions are meant to have started out as a worldwide network of political dissidents operating in a sort of parallel civilization for generations. As time goes on, they grow fed up with the rest of the world and see themselves as unable to change things for the better in any meaningful or ethical way. With nowhere else to go, they look up and see their new home. They pool their resources to build a set of underground launch silos and spaceships, making great effort to ensure that no one is found.

When the day of their exodus arrives, they surprise the rest of the world when a large number of spaceships suddenly take off from hidden launch silos scattered around the world and converge on the moon. Each ship carries settlers, supplies and equipment for rapidly building a sustainable Lunar colony from which they declare independence from Earth.

What I want to know is how would military forces of a modern technology level respond to this mass launch. How quickly would they become aware of these launches? Is it possible some of these ships will be shot down? Or will that surprise window be enough for them to make it into space untouched? Or would such an aggressive response even happen?

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    $\begingroup$ Real "dissidents" rarely have the means (or the freedom) to build spaceships. If they have the freedom and wealth to build spaceships, they seem unlikely to be dissidents. There is a difference between "opposition party" and "dissident" $\endgroup$
    – user535733
    Jun 19, 2022 at 16:50
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    $\begingroup$ The major powers will be aware within minutes at the very latest, probably much less (as in 15-30 seconds after launch).As for their taking action, that seems unlikely so long as whatever the hell is going on is not perceived as an immediate threat. They'll certainly go onto some kind of heightened alert but hopefully these folks have enough on the ball that they don't appear to be following the typical attack route. $\endgroup$ Jun 19, 2022 at 17:09
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    $\begingroup$ VTC because (a) this is an off-topic high concept question and (b) the help center states, "If ... you aren’t sure what a character (be it an individual or organization) should do, that is out of scope for the site." On-topic worldbuilding is about rules. Off-topic storybuilding is about choices. From the help center we read, "When asking questions keep in mind that the goal of the site is to help you build your world, not to tell your story." $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Jun 19, 2022 at 19:56
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    $\begingroup$ You need to be more specific than 'a large number of ships'. You also need to explain exactly how they were hidden from intelligence agencies. How exactly do they acquire the materials and machinery to build them without the orders coming to the attention of an intelligence agency? Better to be out in the open, a civilian enterprise like Space X, launching civilian satellites. $\endgroup$ Jun 19, 2022 at 20:42
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    $\begingroup$ "Each ship carries settlers, supplies and equipment for rapidly building a sustainable Lunar colony from which they declare independence from Earth." The magnitude of this task is far greater than you imagine, and to do it in secrecy is absurdly impossible. As such, write your own rules. What story do you want to tell? What do you want the earth governments to do? $\endgroup$
    – NPSF3000
    Jun 20, 2022 at 3:41

5 Answers 5


The USA would become aware of these launches almost immediately, via the Space-Based Infrared System of satellites. If there were any launches from Russia, China, North Korea or Iran, this would cause an immediate rise in the nuclear alert level, with some risk of mistaken nuclear war. I don't know if Russia or China have similar early-warning systems; the USSR certainly did before it fell.

Assuming that an accidental nuclear war does not break out, there isn't much in the way of plans for intercepting an escape attempt from Earth, so most of your rockets are likely to make it to the Moon.

However, this scenario does seem to be harder than necessary. Building large rockets, capable of carrying significant cargo to the Moon, is quite difficult and extremely expensive. Look up the history of SpaceX, who have had many failures while developing in the open, and making use of a very wide range of commercial engineering suppliers and resources. Consider how much harder it would be to do this secretly.

You're also going to need a lot of rockets to carry enough stuff to the Moon to set up a self-sustaining colony. That's a bit harder than on Mars, because of the total lack of atmosphere and the need to burrow fairly deep to avoid the temperature swings from the Moon's slow rotation. Can you plausibly build a hundred or so rockets equivalent to the SpaceX Starship+Super-Heavy, without ever being spotted testing one, and then launch all of them successfully and simultaneously? Consider how often rocket launches are delayed or postponed. The US' satellites will spot your test launches.

A far easier way to do this would be to set up a company like SpaceX, develop the capability in the open, and then smuggle your people out of their repressive countries and set up a private lunar colony. Smuggling people is a lot easier than building 300' tall rockets in secrecy.

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    $\begingroup$ I put the science-based tag there for a previous question I didn't post and apparently it hitched a ride into this question. I've removed that tag. I am still working out the details of how they managed to prepare this in secret. It may be assisted by some technological developments that make space travel easier. $\endgroup$
    – Arvex
    Jun 19, 2022 at 19:11
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    $\begingroup$ @Arvex: I think you're going to need some radical technological developments to make building all these spacecraft in secret easier than using SpaceX and people-smuggling. I suggest an old James Blish novel, Welcome to Mars!, as a relevant source. $\endgroup$ Jun 19, 2022 at 19:32
  • $\begingroup$ There are some ways in which those rockets would already be easier to build: You don't have to build for the return trip. Landing on the moon is complicated if you want to keep everything intact enough that you can lift off again. A "safe crash" is comparatively easy. $\endgroup$
    – Morfildur
    Jun 20, 2022 at 8:07
  • $\begingroup$ @Arvex if launch technology is so cheap and available that such a project can be prepared in secret FROM the worlds governments, then there are several moon colonies already $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    Jun 20, 2022 at 9:58

In addition to the answer by John regarding missile warning systems ("Where does the rocket impact if it cuts the engines in 30 seconds? In 60 seconds? ..."), you can expect:

  • Depending on the trajectory, attempts to shoot them down with ABM. These may fail as the spacecraft travel towards the Moon, since ABM are for lower altitudes than that. Or they work if the geometry fits.
  • Feverish calculations about where the lower stages will crash, unless your craft are SSTO. Possibly air raid warnings where they will come down, if the countries are organized enough to do that from a peacetime footing. Or the sirens only start after the lower stages hit Earth.
  • Panic reaction in the air traffic control system, grounding all airline flights.

It is highly unlikely that the whole ordeal will not be found out by the militaries until the lauch day. Let's assume they used a public company to test the rockets, which is less suspicious. When you are buying immense amounts of aluminium to build hundreds of space craft, you will get noticed. There is near zero chance that you will not caught until the launch.

Though, if you really want to, this can happen still happen in partial secrecy. Military notices the anormaly. Finds the source and places some spies in to monitor the situtation. Militaries are not like police, they don't immediately respond to developments unless they require urgent action. After spies have reported that they are peaceful, there will be a report to the president. President might simply say let them continue in secret while monitoring their progress. As the ships take to the orbit, the president will be watching, knowing that a strong opposition has left the Earth.


The thing is, how would they NOT be aware of the launch years into advance?

Let's suppose for your sake that they were at a point where the technology to land on the moon is more readily accessible than the technology to put a satellite into orbit is available today.

A full fraction of world wide political dissident? I will try to not be too political, but those would be under heavy scrutiny of the intelligence of all the states. Even small organisation today have a lot surveillance in their back, with infiltrated agent and electronic surveillance. It's for a reason even small groups often get caught planning small scale terrorist attacks, simply because even when not infiltrated, when you see them order weapon in bulk you know something is up.

So when your intel tell you they are buying en masse material to build ICBMs, everybody will watch very closely that you are actually trying to leave earth and not kill everybody. (because rocket science is really just missile science)

There is also no way that all of the world political dissidents starting to hoard the material for an exodus is not an open secret if not a well known fact. This is the kind of operation that asks for industrial scale work.

Humans suck at keeping secrets and with anything involving more than a couple of people, it is guaranteed that somebody will spill the beans by themselves for all kinds of reasons.

(and I don't know if it's in the scope of your question, but how they get the resources is a big can of worm in itself, especially if they are dissidents. If they have the resources to do an exodus why wouldn't they change the world order?)

In conclusion, the states for the world wouldn't do shit when the rockets fly because they would have known the date of lift off years in advance and chose not to stop them because it was cheaper to let them leave than kill them all.


Even if the world militaries could do something (they couldn't, because missile defenses are designed to shoot down missiles when they come down, not when they go up), they probably wouldn't. Because what this organization is doing isn't illegal, or at least not so illegal that it warrants the use of deadly force.

The outer space treaty guarantees that every nation on Earth has the right to fly to the moon if they want to. The treaty only considers nations, not private organizations. That's because when the treaty was written, no private organization had the means to travel to space. With the recent ambitions of private sector companies to make use of space, it has become a topic of debate about if and how the outer space treaty can be applied to non-state actors and if it might need some amendments for this. But until then, there is really no reason why anyone would interfere with anyone's moon project. And even if some countries would have something against an unlicensed rocket launch from within their borders (it probably violates a dozen laws and regulation regarding airspace use), this would not be an infraction justifying the killing of everyone on board these rockets.

What is forbidden, though, is claiming sovereignty of space. So if the organization later declares that their moon colony is now an independent state, they would probably not get international recognition so easily. But that's a topic for a different question.


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