The catastrophic mishap happened in 1967, just half a decade after the Cuban Missile Crisis had already plunged the US and Soviet Union within touching distance of World War 3. On May 23, 1967, three of the US Air Force’s Ballistic Missile Early Warning System in Alaska, Greenland and the UK appeared to have been tampered with. US officials assumed the USSR was responsible and such steps are deemed an act of war, so the wheels were put in motion to prepare nuclear-equipped aircraft for launch, bound for the communist state.
Thankfully, those fighter jets were never launched.
Solar forecasters at the North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD) discovered it was a solar flare that had disrupted the radar, Delores Knipp, a space physicist at the University of Colorado Boulder, claimed after launching a 2016 study into what happened.
She told Space.com the same year: “This was a grave situation.
“Things were going horribly wrong, and then something goes commendably right.
“Had it not been for the fact that we had invested very early on in solar and geomagnetic storm observations and forecasting, the impact [of the storm] likely would have been much greater.
“This was a lesson learned in how important it is to be prepared.”
The storm had begun brewing a few days earlier, on May 18, and researchers at NORAD noticed a big group of sunspots with strong magnetic fields clumped on one part of the solar disc.
Sunspots, dark, relatively cool areas on the Sun’s surface serve as launching pads for powerful bursts of high-energy radiation known as solar flares.
Intense flares that hit Earth can disrupt radio transmissions and satellite communications, among other effects.
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Morris Cohen, an electrical engineer and radio scientist at the Georgia Institute of Technology, in Atlanta, said the move potentially stopped World War 3.
He said: “Oftentimes, the way things work is, something catastrophic happens, and then we say: ‘We should do something so it doesn’t happen again.’
“But in this case, there was just enough preparation done just in time to avert a disastrous result.”
Had those nuclear-equipped planes launched, it is almost certain the USSR would have retaliated, thanks to Mutually Assured Destruction.
This is the belief that a full-scale use of nuclear weapons by two or more opposing sides would cause the complete annihilation of both the attacker and the defender.
It is based on the theory of deterrence, which also holds that the threat of using strong weapons against the enemy prevents the enemy’s use of those same weapons.
The Department of Defence rapidly expanded its space observation in response to the storm, and the US Air Force Space Environment Support System grew directly out of the event.