Thursday, September 28, 2006
He Saved the World - Literally!
I noticed a couple of days ago that Google's title graphic had been changed to include a birthday cake, signifying their 8th Birthday. Google regularly commemorates special events in this way, but there is a far more important anniversary than their birthday to celebrate - September 26th is the date that the world would have ended, but for Colonel Stanislav Petrov.
On 26th September 1983, Petrov was in charge of the Soviet Union’s satellite warning systems. This was the height of the cold war, NATO was carrying out its annual tactical exercises, and two weeks before the Soviets had shot down a Korean airliner that had wandered into their airspace. Ronald Reagan was publicly calling the Soviet Union an ‘Evil Empire’, the warmup man at a UK Conservative party rally had opened with the call to “Bomb Russia”, we had Andropov, a former leader of the KGB, as the current ruler of the Kremlin, and every American was digging a backyard bomb shelter. Things were, to put it mildly, on a hair trigger.
At 40 minutes past midnight on the 26th, Petrov looked up and saw a missile launch from a United States silo. You might expect panic at this point, but missile command tends to attract serious, sober types, the type of people who smoke a pipe and sew leather patches on their jackets. Petrov kept his head. He knew the satellite had been reported as suspect and decided to hold off on informing the high command. Then a second missile launch was picked up, and shortly after another, and another and another. Petrov knew that if he waited until he could confirm the launches with ground radar it would be too late for his country, he and his family would die and the Yankees would win the Cold War.
Thankfully, he thought before acting. He reasoned that it was illogical for a surprise attack to launch missiles one after the other – instead you’d launch everything you had and hope to wipe out the enemy before they reacted. He left the launch button alone and thankfully the missiles proved to be ghosts. Millions of people slept peacefully in their beds that night, blissfully unaware of how close they came to fiery death or a worse existence than they could imagine.
Petrov was reprimanded and now lives in the scientific community of Fryazino in Russia. He was honoured in a ceremony at the United Nations and has been been distinguished by two World Citizen Awards. So take some time out today and say your private thanks to the man who saved the world.