We have been bombarded with apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic books, movies and television shows about how the world will end on December 21, 2012. Round up the usual suspects: ice age, asteroids, meteors, mega-floods, solar flares leading to loss of power, global earthquakes, environmental disasters, rats carrying bubonic plague, nuclear war, alien invasion, takeover by artificial intelligence, out of control nanotechnology, death stars, shifting poles, and vortices swallowing the earth. It’s all fairly frightening…and a good scare sells.
But has the world been close to destruction in recent years? If so, what happened? Spoiler alert: Human judgment saved the planet.
I asked the tour guide if there were any near misses where nuclear warheads were almost launched. She said there were small incidents in the U.S. but an almost catastrophic event in Russia.
In 1983, Lt. Colonel Stanislav Petrov was in charge of the Soviet early warning system. They had nine satellites in orbit to watch for rocket plumes over the U.S. which would indicate nuclear warheads launched.
He and his crew checked but couldn’t find fault with the warning system. After all, it had thirty levels of checks before confirming a launch. Another alarm sounded and the display showed more missiles launched. He had twelve minutes before the missiles were to hit. (Talk about a ticking time bomb.)
Three times the alarms sounded. But Petrov waited. He ultimately decided it was a false alarm. I can only assume he and his crew were ecstatic when bombs didn’t hit Russia. Eventually they figured out that reflected sunlight from the earth into satellite lenses was triggering false alarms.
Our tour guide said that Petrov wasn’t shot or jailed for not informing superiors but wasn’t rewarded either. A few years ago he took the same tour I did to see the Minuteman facility. In 2006 he was honored at the UN and became known as the man who saved the world.
So, when we bypass destruction on December 21st and ring in the New Year, let’s toast Stanislav Petrov (and other unknown heroes) for saving our planet with their good judgment.
Do you remember where you were in 1983 when the world almost ended?