Thirty-three years ago today, just about everyone in the United States came closer to dying than they would realize for many years.
During the Cold War the USSR had some military capabilities that were great and others that were primitive. The former were usually of the brute force variety (large missiles, sturdy tanks, rugged planes) and the latter were generally high-tech things like satellites, electronics, and computers. So at the point at which the US and USSR had rough parity in the ability to rain nuclear warheads on one another, the USSR was decidedly behind in the ability to do things like detect missile launches.
In 1982 – I swear I'm giving you the short version, so bear with me – the USSR launched a generation of spy satellites called Oko (Eye) intended to give it the ability to detect American missile launches. It wasn't very good. It scanned the horizon for the visual signs of a missile plume or a flash at the point at which the curvature of the Earth met the blackness of space (think about that for a second, how insanely far-fetched that is). Each one also carried an optical telescope that ground observers could use to look for those same flashes and streaks. To do so, the technicians who monitored the optical 'scopes had to sit in a pitch dark room for two hours (!!!) to prepare their eyes to look through the dim, grainy, distant telescopes. At this point I want to reiterate that I'm not making any of this up.
In 1983, during a period of heightened tension precipitated by the unusual degree of paranoia among the – What can you write about the Cold War without using this phrase at least once? – "Aging Kremlin Hardliners" and the dick-waving belligerence of the Reagan administration who considered it some combination of productive and hilarious (mostly the latter) to feint like we were about to launch a nuclear attack but not actually do it. Ha ha! Good one. Had they known how bad the Soviet command and control system was, they might have thought better of that. Nah, they weren't strong on thinking.
On September 26 the Oko system began registering flashes on the horizon which were auto-detected by the computer. The human controllers also noticed a glint, seemingly offering more evidence. But the engineer in charge, one Stanislav Petrov, paused before kicking this up the chain of command. First, he knew all about the penchant for false alarms and overall mediocre data produced by the Oko system, the archaic Soviet computers, and the men squinting into telescopes at barely decipherable images. Second, he asked aloud why thee United States would initiate a nuclear attack on its mortal enemy by lobbing a single missile when all of the doctrine of the era suggested that nuclear attack was murder-suicide and the only hope for coming out ahead was to strike first in an overwhelming saturation attack? If this were The Big One, Petrov concluded, American bombers, submarines, and missiles would be inbound by the thousands. Instead there was one phantom missile launch that none of the powerful Soviet ground radars could pick up.
The alarmed Soviet chain of command, already on hair trigger alert due to international tensions (see also Able Archer 83 shortly after this incident), realized it had only seconds to decide what to do. If they waited too long and it was a real nuclear attack, the Soviet forces would be clobbered before they could retaliate. If they jumped the gun, so to speak, they'd be starting a war that would result in their own destruction in return. Due to Petrov's insistence and skepticism within the military at the effectiveness of the new satellite system, the Soviets declined to respond. Sweating bullets, in ten or fifteen minutes they were relieved to find that no missiles were landing anywhere. It turned out upon later analysis that Soviet mathematicians and designers chose a highly elliptical orbit for the satellites that left them susceptible, under very rare circumstances, to seeing "flashes" from sunlight off of high altitude clouds. The system was fixed by adding geostationary satellites for cross referencing.
I'm not telling this story just because it happens to be the anniversary today. I'm telling it to emphasize that sometimes the only thing between the planet and nuclear holocaust is human rationality; for all of our advanced technology, we still rely heavily on people of rationality and intellect to make correct judgments and decisions. Something worth keeping in mind tonight, just in case there is any kind of televised event that lays bare the temperament and intelligence of the people who are jockeying for control of the American nuclear arsenal.