From around 1947 to 1991 the USSR and the United States were engaged in the Cold War. Each side was on edge and prepared to react to any offensive through a tidy and responsive chain-of-command. A major part of this response unit was composed of many strategically-stationed classified nuclear missile silos. These stations were manned with people that were prepared to push a button at a moments notice that would ultimately cause of death of thousands or more. One of those men was Stanislav Petrov, lieutenant colonel of the Soviet Air Defence Forces.
On September 23, 1983 Petrov was manning his station in the Serpukhov-15 bunker outside of Moscow. Tensions were running high. Three weeks before, the Soviet Union had shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007 after it had strayed into Soviet airspace. All 269 people on board died, including a U.S. Congressman.
Around midnight, Petrov’s systems reported an incoming intercontinental ballistic missile. According to his training it was his job to report it to his superiors, who would then initiate the chain-of-command for a counter-attack. But he hesitated.
The one incoming missile seemed odd to him. He believed that if the U.S. were to attack that they would do it in force. He expected to see hundreds of missiles rather than a single lonely projectile soaring over the ocean. He also knew that the system was new and, in his view, not yet wholly trustworthy. He decided that it was a malfunction and did not report it, despite the enormous implications of being mistaken. He waited anxiously for the confirmation that it was in fact a false alarm, later stating he was never sure that the alarm was erroneous. After some time, the warning cleared. There was no missile.
Later in the early morning hours, Petrov’s systems reported 4 more incoming missiles. Based on his earlier experience and the still low amount of incoming missiles reported, he again dismissed the warning. He was again correct. It was later discovered that the false missiles were caused by a rare alignment of high altitude clouds and the Soviet early warning system satellites. The error was fixed permanently by adjusting a satellite’s orbit.
The incident didn’t become publicly known until the 1990s. Since then, Petrov has been honored by several organizations for his role in preventing a nuclear disaster, including receiving the Dresden Prize, although he asserts that the U.S.S.R neither rewarded nor punished him for his actions.