The “Judgment Day” of the Terminator films didn’t come on Aug. 29, 1997. But it almost came on Sept. 26, 1983.
Deep inside the Soviet Union that early September morning, a Soviet military officer was hearing an alarm signaling that the U.S. had launched its intercontinental ballistic missiles at his country. His name was Stanislav Petrov, and he had mere moments to react — and launch a counter-attack of Russian missiles.
“I realized that I had to make some kind of decision, and I was only 50/50,” Petrov told The Associated Press. Petrov, the duty officer whose job was to pass to his superiors reports of enemy missile launches, instead dismissed the signals as false alarms. It was not the correct protocol, but since his going against the rules saved the world from nuclear armageddon, we aren’t too mad about it.
“A minute later the siren went off again. The second missile was launched. Then the third, and the fourth, and the fifth. Computers changed their alerts from ‘launch’ to ‘missile strike’,” he told the BBC. “I had all the data [to suggest there was an ongoing missile attack]. If I had sent my report up the chain of command, nobody would have said a word against it.”
From The Telegraph:
Just three weeks before, the Russians had shot down a Korean jet liner with 269 passengers on board, including a US Congressman and 60 other Americans, after wrongly suspecting it of being a spy plane. The incident pushed East-West tensions to their highest since the Cuban missile crisis, and prompted Ronald Reagan’s infamous remark that the Soviet Union was an “evil empire”.
So when, at 0015 hours, the bright red warning lights started flashing and a loud klaxon horn began wailing, indicating a missile from West Coast USA, Petrov and his colleagues feared the very, very worst. “I saw, that a missile had been fired, aimed at us,” he recalls. “It was an adrenalin shock. I will never forget it.”
Fortunately, Petrov reported the incident as an equipment malfunction. It turned out he was right, as it was later found the satellite had mistaken the sun’s reflection off high clouds as a launch, according to AP.
He was not hailed as a hero in the Soviet Union. Instead, the government swept the potentially embarrassing incident under the rug and he was reprimanded “for incorrectly filling in a log book,” the UK Express reported.
It’s a story that would make for a great movie. Which is probably why there is now a movie: