That Close Call Back in 1995 — The Norwegian Black Brant Incident,
In the past 60 years there have actually been several incidents where the world was almost plunged into a nuclear holocaust. Many of these incidents were purely accidental, caused by things like radar blips resulting from flocks of geese or faulty early warning detection satellites. One of the most interesting close calls occurred in Norway, and is unique in that the incident happened in 1995, after the end of the Cold War.
On January 25th, 1995 a team of Norwegian and American scientists launched the Black Brant VII rocket from the Andøya Space Center in Norway. The purpose of the rocket was to collect scientific data on the aurora borealis over the Arctic Ocean. The rocket reached an altitude of 903 miles and eventually splashed down in the ocean off the coast of Svalbard. At the time most of the world believed the rocket launch was a routine test that occurred without incident. However, little did anyone know, the Russians nearly shit their pants over it.
The rocket traveled over an air corridor that stretches from minuteman III rocket sites in North Dakota. The scientists notified 30 countries, including Russia, of the launch, however the Russian government failed to pass on news of the launch to the Russian President and to the military. Russian early warning radar systems in Murmansk detected the object, which had a similar speed and flight pattern to that of a US Navy Trident missile. Immediately Russian High Command went on full alert, fearing the United States was launching a nuclear missile. While a single missile launch may not seem much of a threat compared to thousands of missiles in an all out nuclear strike, one possible scenario that the Russians feared was that of a high altitude nuclear detonation used as a prelude to all out nuclear war. A nuclear warhead would be detonated high in the atmosphere over Russia, and the resulting electromagnetic pulse would knock out the electrical grid, communications grid, and radar over a large portion of the country, leaving Russia completely vulnerable to an all out attack.
The full alert initiated by the rocket launch went all the way up to Russian President Boris Yeltsin. The Russian nuclear briefcase containing command codes was opened, the only time in history a nation’s nuclear briefcase was ever opened. This was especially scary because Boris Yeltsin had a reputation for being a hard drinker. Yeltsin’s alcohol problems were so bad that he was often drunk in public, at one point allegedly being found wandering the streets of Washington D.C. half naked after a particularly hard bender during a diplomatic visit.
As luck would have it, Boris Yeltsin was perfectly sober on January 25th, 1995, and thus he made a very wise decision to not retaliate but take a wait and see approach. Soon, it was realized that the rocket was traveling away from, not towards Russia, and thus was not a ballistic missile being fired at Russia. 24 minutes after launch, the rocket returned to Earth harmlessly. Disaster had been averted once again.
What is especially disturbing about the Norwegian rocket incident was that it occurred in the 1990′s at a time when Russian - American relations were at a peak. This wasn’t the middle of the Cold War, this wasn’t the Cuban Missile Crises with Nikita Khrushchev shouting “we will bury you!” while slamming his shoe on a podium. This was at at time when there was absolutely no reason to go to nuclear war. It just goes to show that in the modern nuclear age, even at the best of times civilization hangs on a very fine thread.