Petrov Day

Today, 31 years ago, the human species nearly came to an end. Lieutenant colonel Stanislav Petrov  was the officer on duty in bunker Serpukhov-15 near Moscow, monitoring the Soviet Union early warning satellite network. If notification was received that it had detected approaching missiles the official strategy was launch on warning: an immediate counter-attack against the United States. International relations were on a hair trigger: just days before Korean Air Lines Flight 007 had been shot down by Soviet fighter jets, killing everybody onboard (including a US congressman). Kreml was claiming the jet had been on a spy mission, or even deliberately trying to provoke war.

Shortly after midnight the computers reported a single intercontinental missile heading towards Russia.

Petrov had the choice of notifying his superiors, in which case a nuclear war would likely ensue. But he also knew the system was possibly unreliable and that a single missile was an unlikely first salvo. He kept cool, reported it as a false alarm and waited. As the minutes went by, the Soviet launch options also dwindled. The missile disappeared. Then four new appeared. He dismissed them too – rightly, as it eventually turned out that the real cause was reflected sunlight on high altitude clouds.

It is easy to romanticize the situation and turn Petrov into a individualist hero, saving humanity by going against orders and not being recognized until decades later. The importance of the situation is easily graspable and has a main character facing a tense choice: there is drama there. One can also tell the story as an engineer understanding the limitations of his infrastructure and taking a prudent decision: he was just doing an important job right.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.