It was September 26, 1983. Stanislav Petrov, a lieutenant colonel in the Soviet Air Defence Forces, was on duty at Serpukhov-15, a secret bunker outside Moscow. His job: to monitor Oko, the Soviet Union’s early-warning system for nuclear attack. And then to pass along any alerts to his superiors. It was just after midnight when the alarm bells began sounding. One of the system’s satellites had detected that the United States had launched five ballistic missiles. And they were heading toward the USSR. Electronic maps flashed; bells screamed; reports streamed in. A back-lit red screen flashed the word ‘LAUNCH.'”
The protocol for the Soviet military would have been to retaliate with a nuclear attack of its own. But duty officer Stanislav Petrov – whose job it was to register apparent enemy missile launches – decided not to report them to his superiors, and instead dismissed them as a false alarm. This was a breach of his instructions, a dereliction of duty. The safe thing to do would have been to pass the responsibility on, to refer up. Investigation later confirmed that the Soviet satellite warning system had indeed malfunctioned.
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.
One thing that seems clear, however, is that the world carried on into September 27, 1983 in some part because Stanislav Petrov decided to trust himself over malfunctioning machines. And that may have made, in a very broad and cosmic sense, all the difference. Petrov’s colleagues were professional soldiers with purely military training; they would, being trained to follow instructions at all costs, likely have reported a missile strike had they been on shift at the time. Petrov, on the other hand, trusted his own intelligence, his own instincts, his own gut. He made the brave decision to do nothing.
And we’re here to read about him because of it.