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«Starting a war is not done with just five missiles»

Autumn Equinox Incident 1983

[Photo: United States Air Force, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]

Surely many know and have heard the theme The Man Who Sold the World, originally sung by David Bowie in the 70s and later covered and popularized by Nirvana in the 90s of the last century. And it is also quite likely that many are unaware of what is known as The Autumn Equinox Incident, which is related not to a man who sold the world, but rather to another who avoided putting it on the brink of the apolalypse. That Man Who Saved the World has a name: Stanislav Petrov, lieutenant colonel in the army in the former Soviet Union.

Stanislav Petrov Equinocio Otoño 1983
Image of Stanislav Petrov at 77 years old. [Photo: Queery-54, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

What happened dates back to 1983, and to a specific day and month: September 26. That day, like any other, Stanislav Petrov, then 44 years old, was the officer in charge of Serpukhov-15, a secret bunker from which the USSR government monitored its recently inaugurated early warning satellite system for the detection of possible launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles, coming from its then enemy par excellence during the so-called Cold War: the United States.

The tension and the arms and technological race between the two powers was such that, in their eagerness to overcome their opponents, the Soviets had chosen to use a detection method different from that of the US. While US satellites observed the entire surface of the Earth, those of their opponents focused more on the edge of the Earth, in order to reduce the possibility of false alerts related to missile launches. Thanks to this system, once the missiles were at a height of between 5 and 1o miles, their silhouette would stand out against the black background of space. In addition, when viewing the edge of the planet, the light that may be reflected by clouds or snow has to pass through a considerable part of the atmosphere, so that view reduces the chances that such natural phenomena can cause false alarms.

As can be seen, the humans beings always believing that their technological advances can monitor and control the forces of Nature and the Cosmos. But there are always unforeseen and unpredictable scenarios that put in their true place, that of universal insignificance, those who believe they are gods and play to hold the fate of humanity in their hands.

«I knew that no one would be able to correct my mistake if I was wrong»

Shortly after midnight on September 26, 1983, Moscow time, the sun, the Soviet early warning satellite Oko (Eye), and the American missile fields aligned in such a way as to maximize sunlight reflected by high-altitude clouds, which resulted in the detection of five missiles that were supposed to have been launched from the US and were flying through space en route to Soviet territory. What did Petrov do in the face of what looked like a nuclear attack? Well, simply nothing. And, obviously, don't think that he stood idly by, but his knowledge and instinct led him not to give the warning voice to his superiors in the chain of command.

«I made my decision and I would not trust the computer. I picked up the phone and reported to my superiors that it was a false alarm even though I myself was not sure until the very last moment. I knew perfectly well that no one would be able to correct my mistake anymore in case I was wrong.» These are Petrov's words in a statement to the BBC, which undoubtedly recall the suspense and anguish he must have felt on September 26, 1983.

The Man Who Saved the World (2014) documentary trailer.

Waiting for a Massive and Single Attack

This high-ranking military had been repeatedly told that, in the event of a nuclear attack by the US, it would be designed in such a way that the enemy would not be able to respond. It would be a massive and single attack. In fact, in this sense Stanislav Petrov, whose cold blood and temperance served so that everything remained in a false alarm, would end up declaring to the press:

When people start a war, they don't start it with only five missiles. You can do little damage with just five missiles.


Geoffrey Forden (2001). Reducing a Common Danger Improving Russia’s Early-Warning System. In Policy Analysis (pp. 5-6). Washington, United States: Cato Institute
David Hoffman. "I Had A Funny Feeling in My Gut". The Washington Post, 29 September 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/inatl/longterm/coldwar/shatter021099b.htm
BBCNews. (Sep 19, 2017). Stanislav Petrov, who averted possible nuclear war, dies at 77 [Video]. Youtube. https://youtu.be/L7EmLf4Xlq0]