The Man Who Saved The World

Stanislav Petrov:

To celebrate that today is not the 35th anniversary of World War III, the man who helped avert an all-out nuclear exchange between Russia and the United States on September 26, 1983 was honored in New York with the $50,000 Future of Life Award. [...]

Although the UN General Assembly, just blocks away, heard politicians highlight the nuclear threat from North Korea's small nuclear arsenal, none mentioned the greater threat from the many thousands of nuclear weapons in the United States and Russian arsenals that have nearly been unleashed by mistake dozens of times in the past in a seemingly never-ending series of mishaps and misunderstandings.

One of the closest calls occurred 35 years ago, when Stanislav Petrov chose to ignore the Soviet early-warning detection system, which had erroneously indicated five incoming American nuclear missiles. With his decision to ignore algorithms and instead follow his gut instinct, Petrov helped prevent an all-out US-Russia nuclear war, as detailed in the documentary film The Man Who Saved the World, which will be released digitally next week. [...]

But most would agree that he went above and beyond his job duties that September day in 1983. The alert of five incoming nuclear missiles came at a time of high tension between the superpowers, due in part to the US military buildup in the early 1980s and President Ronald Reagan's anti-Soviet rhetoric. Earlier in that month, the Soviet Union shot down a Korean Airlines passenger plane that strayed into its airspace, killing almost 300 people, and Petrov had to consider this context when he received the missile notifications. He had only minutes to decide whether or not the satellite data were a false alarm. Since the satellite was found to be operating properly, following procedures would have led him to report an incoming attack.

Going partly on gut instinct and believing the United States was unlikely to fire only five missiles, he told his commanders that it was a false alarm before he knew that to be true. Later investigations revealed that reflections of the sun off of cloud tops had fooled the satellite into thinking it was detecting missile launches.

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4 Responses:

  1. ctag says:

    I hadn't heard that last bit before. It's been explained to me before that Soviet radars picked up a meteor and mis-identified it as an incoming missile. I think the sunlight/clouds situation is much more intriguing.

  2. Kaleberg says:

    This couldn't happen nowadays. We have AI. We have machine learning. There's no place for this kind of human error.

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