|Courtesy of NASA.
Stanislav Petrov - World Hero
Stanislav Petrov — World Hero
He averted a catastrophe that could have shaken the foundation of the Earth for many centuries to come — and the future of humanity forever . . .
During 1983 in Russia, there was a man who would have been considered an enemy by the people of America. But as it turned out, he would become an unknown hero for the whole world — perhaps the greatest hero of all time. Because of military secrecy, and political and international differences, most of the world has not heard of this man. He is Stanislav Petrov.
The extraordinary incident leading to his heroism occurred near Moscow, in the former Soviet Union just past midnight on September 26, 1983. Because of time zone differences, it was still September 25 in America, a Sunday afternoon.
Because of the Cold War during this time, the United States and the Soviet Union were bitter adversaries. These two world powers did not trust each other, and this distrust led to a dangerous consequence: They built thousands of nuclear weapons to be used against each other if a war should ever break out between them. If there ever were such a war, these nations would very likely devastate each other and much of the world many times over, resulting in the deaths of perhaps hundreds of millions of people.
It was Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov’s duty to use computers and satellites to warn the Soviet Union if there were ever a nuclear missile attack by the United States. In the event of such an attack, the Soviet Union’s strategy was to launch an immediate all-out nuclear weapons counterattack against the United States.
On this particular day, something went wrong. Suddenly the computer alarms sounded, warning that an American missile was heading toward the Soviet Union. Petrov reasoned that a computer error had occurred since the United States was not likely to launch just one missile if it were attacking the Soviet Union — it would launch many. Besides, there had been questions in the past about the reliability of the satellite system being used. So he dismissed the warning as a false alarm, concluding that no missile had actually been launched by the United States.
But then, just a short time later, the situation turned very serious. Now the computer system was indicating a second missile had been launched by the United States and was approaching the Soviet Union. Then it showed a third missile being launched, and then a fourth and a fifth. The sound of the alarms was deafening. In front of Petrov, the word “Start” was flashing in bright lettering, presumably the instruction indicating the Soviet Union must begin launching a massive counterstrike against the United States.
Even though Petrov had a gnawing feeling the computer system was wrong, he had no way of knowing for sure. He had nothing else to go by. The Soviet Union’s land radar was not capable of detecting any missiles beyond the horizon, information that, by then, would be too late to be useful. And worse, he had only a few minutes to decide what to tell the Soviet leadership. He made his final decision: He would trust his intuition and declare it a false alarm. If he were wrong, he realized nuclear missiles from the United States would soon begin raining down on the Soviet Union.
He waited. The minutes and seconds passed. Everything remained quiet — there were no missiles and no destruction. His decision had been right. Stanislav Petrov had prevented a worldwide nuclear war! He was a hero. Those around him congratulated him for his superb judgment.
But he had disobeyed military procedure by defying the computer warnings. And because of this, he later underwent intense questioning by his superiors about his actions during this nerve-racking ordeal. Perhaps because he had ignored the warnings, he was no longer considered a reliable military officer. Presumably, in the military, it is understood that orders and procedures are to be carried out unfailingly, without question.
In the end, the Soviet military did not reward or honor Stanislav Petrov for his actions. It did not punish him either. But his once promising military career had come to an end. He was reassigned to a less sensitive position and within two years was retired from the military. He went on to live his life in Russia as a pensioner.
Because of Stanislav Petrov’s actions that day in 1983, the Earth was spared what could have become the most devastating tragedy in the history of humanity. Stanislav Petrov has said he does not regard himself as a hero for what he did that day. But in terms of the incalculable number of lives saved, and the overall health of the planet Earth, he undeniably is one of the greatest heroes of all time.
There is yet something else unsettling about this incident. Stanislav Petrov was not originally scheduled to be on duty that night. Had he not been there, it is possible a different commanding officer would not have questioned the computer alarms, tragically leading the world into a nuclear holocaust. As it turned out, this incident ended happily for America and for the world. But unfortunately for Stanislav Petrov, it ruined his career and his health, and it deprived him of his peace of mind. This is one debt the world will never be able to repay.
Bright Star Sound
- The story of Stanislav Petrov, a Russian officer who averted a worldwide nuclear war in 1983. You can listen to the recording "World Hero," which tells what happened that day (free listen/download). Also photos, links and much more.