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U.S. Admits "Salvage Operation" Underway in Antarctica

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (AMP) — The United States for the first time admitted it is engaged in a "salvage operation" in Antarctica and says that a recently discovered "anomaly" two miles beneath the ice is a NASA Mars module lost during an ill-fated training mission 31 years ago.

"Our salvage crew has found a piece of American spaceflight history at the bottom of an eleven-thousand-foot-deep ice gorge in East Antarctica," Defense Department spokesman Glenn Flood said. "But an icy gale crushed the robotic rover used to identify and photograph the spacecraft, putting recovery efforts on hold until the polar storm passes." That could be weeks, he added.

Observers in the international community were suspicious of the announcement, calling the "recovery effort " a cover story for something more sinister. "Why all the secrecy?" asked one French diplomat at the United Nations. "When the Liberty Bell 7 space capsule was discovered on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean, much hoopla was made. Now it sits in the Kansas Cosmosphere. Where is the publicity for this discovery?"

Some intelligence analysts speculate that the lost Mars module was powered by a compact nuclear reactor plant. That would be in direct violation of the international Antarctic Treaty. "The irony," said one space observer, "is that in attempting to cover its past infringements, the U.S. does even greater violation to the treaty."

To this day NASA has refused to release details on the module, Red Genie, or the names of its four occupants. But some old-timers from the Apollo space program recall Red Genie disappeared halfway through a 40-day training mission meant to simulate conditions on Mars after the ice beneath it mysteriously collapsed, revealing an ancient, scythe-like gorge almost one mile long and two miles deep. [Click here to take a virtual tour of Antarctica, courtesy of the Center for Astrophysical Research in Antarctica (CARA).]

When asked why a military rather than a civilian salvage crew was used, Flood said that NASA reserved the right to inspect the capsule for signs of what went wrong in 1969. Two cameras and a tape recorder were on board that could shed light on what happened in one of the more intriguing mysteries of American space flight.

"Few Americans are aware that NASA had plans to put the first man on Mars in 1982," said former Apollo systems technician Peter Nordquist, 78. "And we could have done it back then cheap. Just imagine. Today a manned flight is so cost-prohibitive that nobody will seriously talk about it. They want to stick with robots like the Sojourner."

The Mars shuttle, as originally formulated by rocket pioneer Wernher von Braun in 1953 and later revised by NASA planners in the late 1960s, was scheduled to depart the American space station Freedom on November 12, 1981, reach the red planet on August 9, 1982, and return to Earth one year later. But by 1969 the war in Vietnam had sapped the federal budget, and the moon landing had temporarily satiated Americans' appetite for space exploration. With congressional opposition to the mission mounting, President Nixon rejected the Mars mission and space station program. Only the space shuttle got the green light.

Critics in hindsight say Nixon's catastrophic decision set back the Mars program for decades, left the space shuttle all dressed up with no place to go and cast a rudderless NASA adrift in the political backwaters of Washington without a clear vision.

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