Close Shaves in History


Think your job is stressful? Just past midnight on September 26, 1983, a Soviet satellite reported five missiles launched from a Montana base towards the U.S.S.R. In a command post near Moscow, a red button labeled "Start" began flashing.

Amazingly, Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov [wiki], a former software engineer, managed to play it cool. Figuring that the United States wasn't crazy enough to start a war with just five missiles fired from a single location, Petrov suspected computer error. And thank goodness he did. Still, Petrov went against his training when he refused to set the retaliatory strike in motion.

After the incident, Soviet investigators determined that the computer system had triggered the warnings simply based on sunlight reflection off of clouds. And while Armageddon was averted, Petrov wasn't exactly hailed as a hero; instead he was reassigned to a less sensitive position and soon retired.

He did get some belated recognition in 2004, though, when he received a World Citizen Award plaque at a ceremony in Moscow. That honor was eclipsed in 2006, however, when he was given a World Citizen Award trophy and, presumably, a T-shirt reading, "I Saved the Earth from World War III and All I Got Was a Lousy Trophy."


When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, two docs hatched a secret plan to save a dozen villages near Rozwadów and Zbydniów. Doctors Eugene Lazowski and Stanislaw Matulewicz decided to create a fake typhus epidemic (a disease that, at the time, had no cure and was often fatal) by using harmless bacterium to trigger false-positives on typhus tests.

Knowing that Jews who tested positive for typhus would be summarily executed, the doctors only injected the non-Jewish population, hoping a widespread outbreak would cause Germans to abandon the area and thus spare local Jews in the process.

The ruse was nearly discovered when a Gestapo doctor arrived to confirm the tests, but clever Poles distracted the doctor with plenty of kielbasa and vodka, then sealed the deal by displaying several sickly townsfolk, claiming they were all consumed by typhus fever.

The "epidemic" was confirmed and grim signs were immediately posted throughout the region reading "Achtung, Fleckfieber!" (Warning, Typhus!), To contain the fake epidemic, the Gestapo quarantined the area throughout the World War II, and countless lives were saved. (Image of Dr. Eugene Lazowski: Holocaust Forgotten)


The jerry-rigged carbon dioxide scrubber unit in Apollo 13's Lunar Module

Arguably NASA's most famous close shave occurred during the Apollo 13 [wiki] mission. After astronauts evacuated their damaged Command Module (CM) and crowded into the Lunar Module (LM), they noticed that carbon dioxide levels were dangerously high due to a failing air filter. Air filtration units in the LM had round openings, but the filter canisters salvaged from the CM were square.

Thankfully, Mission Control radioed a MacGyver solution: By rigging together plastic bags, cardboard, and duct tape, astronauts connected a square canister to the round hole, narrowly avoiding death by asphyxiation.

Duct tape, it seems, has played a pivotal role in several NASA missions. In 1972, Apollo 17 astronauts used it to repair a lunar rover bumper; in 2001 international Space Station astronauts and cosmonauts constructed a kitchen table using leftover aluminum pieces and duct tape; and in 2005, Space Shuttle Discovery astronaut Stephen Robinson crafted a hacksaw for a repair mission using a blade, plastic ties, Velcro, and---yup---the ol' D.T.

The article above appeared in the Scatterbrained section of the March - April 2007 issue of mental_floss magazine. It is reprinted here with permission.

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