The Thing Is with Steve Canavan - November 26, 2015

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Have you heard of a chap called Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov?

Until a couple of days ago I hadn’t either, but it appears we all owe him a debt of gratitude.

If it wasn’t for him, you see, many of us might not be here.

I’m reading a book about the history of the Cold War (I won’t lie, it’s not a page-turner; it cost 50p from Oxfam and think I paid about five times too much) and have just finished a chapter about the 1983 Soviet nuclear false alarm incident.

On September 26 of that year, there would have been – had Mr Petrov been the nervous type – a nuclear war between America and the Soviet Union; one person, as bizarre as it sounds, prevented the human race – or at least a large proportion of it – being wiped out.

This was a period when relations between Russia and America were at their worst since the Cuban Missile Crisis at the start of the 60s.

Former film star Ronald Reagan was in the White House, the Soviet leader was a chap called Yuri Andropov, and both were convinced that the other was about to launch a deadly attack.

Both had vast arsenals of nuclear weapons ready to fire, with Reagan perhaps not easing the tension by describing the Soviet Union as an “evil empire”.

It was against that backdrop that on September 26, 32 years ago (to jog your memory, Michael Jackson’s Thriller album topped the charts for 37 weeks, Gandhi won an Oscar for best film and wearing seat belts in a car became mandatory), Mr Petrov was sat in a bunker near Moscow.

His job was to monitor the Soviet Union’s early warning satellite network and notify his superiors of any impending nuclear strike.

The deal was that if Mr Petrov phoned and said the Americans had fired a missile, the Soviets would immediately launch a nuclear counter-attack.

One can only imagine Petrov’s surprise, when, half-an-hour past midnight, as he was stifling a yawn and counting down the minutes to the end of his shift, the bunker’s computers reported a nuclear missile was heading towards the Soviet Union. Petrov – who, I can only assume, was a man of a remarkably calm nature – decided this was a computer error.

As far as I can make out from the book, he came to this decision – a decision, lest we forget, that could have spelt the end of the country – because ‘it felt a bit odd’.

It seemed, said Petrov, that “a first-strike was likely to involve hundreds of simultaneous missile launches” in order to prevent the Soviets being able to counter-attack. He was also worried about the satellite system’s reliability.

A short while later – one imagines that during this ‘short while’ Mr Petrov was a tad on edge – the computers identified four more missiles as ‘in the air and heading towards Moscow’.

Petrov, a man evidently with nerves of steel, again concluded it was a false alarm, despite having no other source of information to confirm his suspicions.

Thankfully for him and millions of folk around the world, he was right, and it was later determined that the false alarms had been caused by ‘a rare alignment of sunlight on high-altitude clouds and the satellite’.

What a man.

Alas, after initially being praised for calm actions that averted the end of mankind, Petrov was reprimanded for “improper filing of paperwork”, the powers-that-be allegedly furious he hadn’t told them about what could have been a potential devastating attack.

To this day it is considered the closest the Soviet Union and the US ever came to nuclear war.

Mr Petrov was ushered into early retirement (the Russians embarrassed he had exposed flaws in their expensive early satellite warning system) and later suffered a breakdown.

Justice, of sorts, was done two years ago, though, when Petrov was honoured by the United Nations and awarded the Dresden Prize in Germany – complete with a cheque for £21,000 – for his actions in averting a nuclear war.

Where are the aliens?

In keeping with the historical nature of this week’s column, it is 38 years to the day since one of the strangest moments on British television.

Halfway through the evening news in the south of England, the screen went fuzzy and a speaker calling himself Vrillon and claiming to be a representative of “an intergalactic association” broke into a six-minute speech (which was no doubt annoying for anyone waiting to find out the weather the following day in Bognor Regis).

“I have a message for the planet. We are beginning to enter the period of Aquarius and there are many corrections which have to be made by Earth people,” said a distorted voice to the background of a deep buzzing – not unlike some chart songs in today’s top 40.

“All your weapons of evil must be destroyed. You have only a short time to learn to live together in peace. You must live in peace... or leave the galaxy.”

After which the message abruptly ended and the news came back on, halfway through a piece about the increase of litter in Torquay town centre.

Emergency services were swamped with phone calls from worried householders, prompting the UK’s Independent Broadcasting Authority to dismiss what had occurred as a hoax.

They did, however, admit it would take “a considerable amount of technical know-how” to pull off such a feat, leading to newspaper speculation that it was a genuine Alien transmission.

If it was, the aliens have been very shy in the last four decades, as a similar episode is – more’s the pity – yet to occur.