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24 years ago today, the world came disturbingly close to ending

The Russian military mistook a research rocket launched by scientists for a US missile attack.

A Black Brant XII rocket launching from the Andøya Rocket Range in 2010
A Black Brant XII rocket launching from the Andøya Rocket Range in 2010, some 15 years after the more historically important Black Brant XII launch from that range.
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

Today, January 25, 2019, marks the 24th anniversary of the time that I (and many millions of others) came closest in my lifetime to getting nuked to death.

That day, a group of American and Norwegian researchers launched a Black Brant XII sounding rocket from the Arctic Circle island of Andøya in an effort to study aurora borealis (the northern lights).

The scientists had warned Russia, the US, and 28 other countries that they were planning a launch, as they knew there was a chance that the rocket would be mistaken for a nuclear first strike.

But someone forgot to tell Russian radar technicians. The technicians sent an alert to Moscow suggesting that an American first strike might be incoming.

”Within minutes, President Boris Yeltsin was brought his black nuclear-command suitcase. For several tense minutes, while Yeltsin spoke with his defense minister by telephone, confusion reigned,” the Washington Post’s David Hoffman reported a few years after the incident. “Little is known about what Yeltsin said, but these may have been some of the most dangerous moments of the nuclear age.”

It was, Hoffman reported, the first time a Russian or Soviet leader had used a nuclear briefcase in response to an actual alert. Yeltsin concluded that it was not actually a first strike and did not retaliate.

For that, I thank him; I don’t know if a Russian second strike would have sent enough warheads to kill 4-year-old Dylan all the way up in New Hampshire, but I’m also glad we didn’t have to find out.

But, of course, the 1995 incident was hardly the only time in the nuclear area we came close to an accidental nuclear exchange.

On October 27, 1962, Vasili Arkhipov, a Soviet navy officer, was in a nuclear submarine near Cuba when US naval forces started dropping depth charges (a mild explosive meant to signal for the submarine to identify itself). Two senior officers on the submarine thought that a nuclear war had already begun and wanted to launch a nuclear torpedo at a US vessel. But all three senior officers had to agree for the missile to fire, and Arkhipov dissented, preventing a nuclear exchange.

On September 26, 1983, Soviet Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov was watching the Soviet Union’s missile attack early warning system when it displayed, in large red letters, the word “LAUNCH”; Petrov’s computer terminal gradually indicated that one, then two, then three, and eventually a total of five American missiles were incoming. Petrov declined to report the strike, knowing that if he did, the likely response would be a full nuclear retaliation. And it was good he did, because the Minuteman missiles the detection system thought it saw were actually just the sun’s reflection off clouds.

Oh, and while we’re at it: The Air Force lost a nuclear bomb off the coast of Georgia in 1958, where it remains today. There’s also a nuclear weapon stuck in a field in Faro, North Carolina, because of another time the Air Force screwed up; that bomb came extremely close to detonating.

Also, in 1980, an intercontinental ballistic missile exploded in Damascus, Arkansas, while it had a 9-megaton nuclear warhead — with three times more explosive power than all the bombs of World War II combined — on top of it. The warhead didn’t detonate; if it did, much of Arkansas wouldn’t exist today.

We can live safely in the knowledge that much or all of humankind won’t suddenly vanish due to a miscalculation by a radar officer in Russia or the US, and that people near missile sites won’t find themselves incinerated accidentally due to technician error. Or we can continue to have nuclear weapons. But we have to choose.

Correction: An earlier version of this article claimed that Arkansas wouldn’t exist if the Damascus bomb had gone off (and then-governor Bill Clinton and first lady Hillary Clinton would have perished), but a look at nuclear researcher Alex Wellerstein’s NUKEMAP suggests that Little Rock probably would have been spared the blast. The language has been changed. Thanks to Paul McGrane for the pointer.

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