His name was Stanislav Petrov, and he was to be the second person to save the Earth from the nuclear apocalypse. And much controversy was created because of his decision that may have saved us a thousand times more.
The year was 1983 and relationships between the USA and the Soviet Union were already strained. On September 1st, Korean Airlines Flight 007 flew into Soviet airspace and was shot down by Soviet Interceptors. Among the passengers were many US citizens including one Lawrence McDonald, a sitting member of Congress.
At first the Soviet Union denied any knowledge of the flight or the crash. Through further pushes from the US government, they admitted to shooting down the plane under the pretense that it was on a spy mission. Tensions rose and a battle of words began between the two nations (including new preparations in the US for full nuclear war). To this day it is considered to be one of the most volatile moments in the Cold War.
Three weeks after the KAF 007 went down, the Soviet Union was preparing for attack by the US. An early-warning system, code-named Oko, was designed to warn of nuclear weapons sent from the US. Stanislav Petrov was on duty watching the system. If there were any warnings, his job was to tell superiors who would issue an immediate counter-attack in an act of mutual assured destruction.
On September 26th, a warning appeared. An intercontinental ballistic missile was heading directly from the US to Soviet Union land. Petrov thought hard and decided against retaliation on the grounds that it was a computer error due to previous issues. He further believed that if the US was attacking it would be hundreds of missiles launched at the same moment in order to completely disable retaliation.
But perhaps he had spoken too soon? The system then reported four additional missiles moving for the Soviet Union! Despite having no information other than the system itself, Petrov decided against attack under the idea of computer malfunction. Waiting for the ground radar to confirm would bring reaction down to barely minutes and he was putting his life at stake for this theory.
Due to failing to follow orders by not reporting the missiles Petrov was questioned intensely, but initially praised and promised awards. But no awards came from the Soviet Union. In fact, his involvement and the incident itself was not heard of or publicly know for more than seven years. But when news came out it spread rapidly.
He is now living in retirement in Fryazino, Russia, but not without recognition. 2003 came around and the Association of World Citizens (San Fransisco) “in recognition of the part he played in averting a catastrophe” sent Petrov the World Citizen Award along with a trophy and $1000.
There is currently a movie in production about Stanislav Petrov entitled: The Red Button and the Man Who Saved the World. In it Petrov makes the comment “All that happened didn’t matter to me — it was my job. I was simply doing my job, and I was the right person at the right time, that’s all. My late wife for 10 years knew nothing about it. ‘So what did you do?’ she asked me. I did nothing.”