In January of 1995 American and Norwegian scientists launched a rocket carrying scientific equipment off of the northwestern coast of Norway. The purpose of the launch was to study the aurora borealis.
The trajectory of the rocket traveled through air space that may have been used in the case of an American attack on Russia. The launch was picked up by a Russian early warning radar station and was misinterpreted as a possible surprise attack by American submarines.
This misinterpretation caused a full alert to be sent up the Russian military chain of command who in turn alerted Russian President Boris Yeltsin. They brought Yeltsin the nuclear briefcase he would use to launch a retaliatory nuclear strike. Russian submarines were put on alert and ordered to prepare for a possible launch of their missiles.
Before Yeltsin ordered his missiles to launch the radar stations concluded the research rocket was heading away from Russia and the crisis was over.
The scientists had informed Russia ahead of time that they would be launching a research rocket but the message was never passed on to the Russian radar stations, thus leaving them in the dark about the true nature of the rocket they were observing.
We might recall that President Yeltsin had more than a little bit of a problem with alcohol. Just a few months before this incident when Yeltsin was in Washington for his first meeting with President Clinton, Yeltsin wandered drunk out on to Pennsylvania Avenue wearing only his underwear trying to hail down a taxi so he could go get some pizza.
Let us be forever grateful that it wasn’t that Yeltsin whom the Russians generals brought the nuclear briefcase to.