1983: A Soviet ballistics officer draws the right conclusion -- that a satellite report indicating incoming U.S. nuclear missiles is, in fact, a false alarm -- thereby averting a potential nuclear holocaust.
Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov was duty officer at Serpukhov-15, the secret bunker outside Moscow that monitored the Soviet Union's early-warning satellite system, when the alarm bells went off shortly after midnight. One of the satellites signaled Moscow that the United States had launched five ballistic missiles at Russia.
Given the heightened tensions between the two countries -- the alarm coincided with the beginning of provocative NATO military exercises and barely three weeks after the Russians shot down a South Korean airliner that had wandered into Soviet air space -- Petrov could have been forgiven for believing the signal was accurate. The electronic maps flashing around him didn't do anything to ease the stress of the moment.
But Petrov smelled a rat. "I had a funny feeling in my gut" that this was a false alarm. For one thing, the report indicated that only five missiles had been fired. Had the United States been launching an actual nuclear attack, he reasoned, ICBMs would be raining down on them.
"I didn't want to make a mistake. I made a decision, and that was it." Petrov's gut feeling was due in large part to his lack of faith in the Soviet early-warning system, which he subsequently described as "raw." He reported it as a false alarm to his superiors, and hoped to hell he was right.
Petrov was initially praised for his cool head but later came under criticism and was, for a while, made the scapegoat for the false alarm. Further investigation, however, found that the satellite in question had picked up the sun's reflection off the cloud tops and somehow interpreted that as a missile launch.
Petrov lives today on his army pension in a village outside of Moscow.
(Source: Washington Post)