Monday, January 17, 2011

Thank You, Stanislav Petrov

Where were you in September, 1983? I was in college. A typical day would have involved going to classes, maybe a few hours of work at the mall, possibly a rehearsal for the musical "Of Thee I Sing" - I was in the chorus and had a couple of lines, too.

In September, 1983, Stanislav Petrov was at work in a bunker new Moscow. He was monitoring an early warning system for any signs of nuclear attack. On September 26, while working a double shift, his screen turned red, indicating that an intercontinental ballistic missile had been launched from the United States and was streaking through the sky towards the USSR.

Petrov knew that tense relations between the US and USSR were even more strained than usual. Three weeks early, an American congressman and 268 other passengers and crew had been killed when Soviet jets shot down a Korean Air flight that had strayed into Soviet airspace. He also knew that the new early warning system was not without its problems. He waited. Then the system reported the launch of four more ICBMs. Still, he waited.

Had Petrov reported the situation to his superiors, they could easily have made the decision to launch a retaliatory strike that would have ended life as we know it. Petrov didn't panic. He considered the situation logically, and he knew that if the US were really entering nuclear war with the USSR, more than five missiles would be headed their way. No other systems, such as ground level radar, could corroborate the early warning system's report.  So, the day passed, for the rest of the world, without fear, without war, because Petrov waited.

Thank you, sir.

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