June 26, 2019

The Computer That Almost Started A Nuclear War

“If things had gone just slightly differently on a tense night in 1983, today would be the 35th anniversary of the start of of World War III, for whoever was left alive to observe such an occasion. 6:00 Eastern Time on September 25, 2018 marks the moment when one man’s decision saved the world from nuclear war.

At just after midnight in Moscow, on September 26, 1983, a siren’s wail split the air in the Serpukhov-5 nuclear early-warning facility, a secret bunker just south of Moscow. The red screen across the room from Lt. Colonel Stanislav Petrov’s glass-walled office, usually blank, flashed a single ominous word: START. The computer system responsible for processing data from the Soviet Union’s Oko launch-detection satellites warned that the United States had just launched a single intercontinental ballistic missile at the Soviet Union. It would strike in 12 minutes.

Petrov picked up the phone in one shaking hand and called his superiors in the Soviet Air Defense Forces. False alarm, he told them. It didn’t make sense for the U.S. to have launched a single missile; the reading had to be a bug in the new early warning computer system, which Petrov the software engineer didn’t yet completely trust. He had just set the phone back on its cradle when the system flashed a second warning, then three more. Five nuclear missiles were, according to the satellites and their computer system, flying on high ballistic arcs toward the Soviet Union. The computer system calculated the probability of attack at 100%.”

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