Jan. 24, 1995

State of the Union Address: Midway through his speech, President Clinton asserts, “We've come so far, so fast in this post-Cold-War world that it's easy to take the decline of the nuclear threat for granted.” Little does anyone know, President Clinton’s assertion is about to be put to the test.

Jan. 25, 1995

Just three hours after the State of the Union address, a team of American and Norwegian scientists launch a Black Brant XII sounding rocket from the Andøya Space Center in northern Norway. The BB-XII rocket, set to climb almost vertically to 1200 km above the earth, was engineered to collect data on the cleft ion fountain within the Aurora Borealis. By chance, the rocket happens to soar at a similar speed and trajectory as a submarine-launched ballistic missile.

Russia’s early-warning radar in Olenegorsk picks up the launch, once the rocket breaks its radar beams. Measuring speed, trajectory, and plume signature, the radar automatically identifies the rocket as hostile. Immediately, an attack warning goes to the Kremlin. Russia's Command and Control leaders have only a few minutes to respond.

The immense pressure of a nuclear alert leaves little time for reflection or critical thinking. The facts are as they seem, and the decision is straightforward: to launch or not launch a retaliatory attack.

Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first post-Cold War president, is faced with a decision that could affect the whole world.