At the beginning of the year 1969, the people at NASA were sure that they would make history. Apollo 10, 11, and 12 were scheduled and the latter two would be Moon landings. No one thought that those would lead towards something bigger than the first manned landing on the Moon.
Launched in February 1969, Mariner 6 was on the way towards Mars, while NASA prepared itself for Apollo 11 and Commander Neil Armstrong’s step into history.
Maybe it was fate, maybe it was pure random chance, but at the same time the Eagle touched down on Mare Tranquility, many radar stations all over Earth experienced slight interferences on the UHF and L bands lasting about 12 hours and repeating every about 24 and a half hours.
In a time frame of four hours before and after the closest Martian approach of Mariner 6, on July 31st, the interference increased on the UHF bands, triggering an alarm in the United States Air Force Ballistic Missile Early Warning System. It could be traced back to Mars with triangulation using the tracking AN/FPS-49 systems at Thule Air Base and Clear Air Base Station.
Afterwards, the interference went back to previous levels, but could still be tracked to Mars. On August 5th, a second alarm was set off for two hours before and after the closest Martian approach of Mariner 7, only to return to the low level where it remained for two more weeks before disappearing.
The US Air Force kept the trace of the interference a secret, even though they believed it to be a natural phenomenon or a problem with either the antenna or the computer system.
Only when NASA released the images of Mariner 6, several Air Force officers got the chance to study the satellite images. One of them, Colonel Willard Andrews, used to be an aerial photo reconnaissance analyst during World War Two and the Korean War and was now working at the BMEWS.
It was the image of the closest approach with a crater, later known as Flaugergues Crater, which drew the attention of Colonel Andrews. To the west of the crater, there was a large, darker spot that had previously been identified as a transmission error. To Andrews the spot appeared to be too irregular to be a mere error and he began research, mostly to satisfy his own curiosity.
He remembered the interference problems he had to work with, during the time Mariner 6 and 7 made their passes and the ability to trace it back to Mars. Over the following weeks he was able to discover that the beginning and end of each interference was in sync with the planetary rotation of Mars and with the rising and setting of the Flaugergues Crater on the Martian horizon.
On September 20th, Andrews was convinced to have enough evidence to talk to his superiors. Unfortunately, while some of them even accused him of making up a crackpot theory, the others were not entirely convinced by Andrews and decided to keep it under wraps for the foreseeable future.
That did not, however, work out the way Andrews’ superiors would have liked it, as Andrews was not the only one who had gone through the material available, as one of the people working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, James Dennis, had a similar idea to Andrews. Like Andrews, Dennis had also worked as an aerial photo reconnaissance analyst during World War Two and drew the same conclusions, by using only slightly different sets of data.
Unlike Andrews, Dennis was able get his ideas out in the open and publish his material in Scientific American in a special issue about the NASA space programs and possible future missions following the successful Apollo 11 mission. The edition instantly got much attention from other media as well and the general public’s interest soared, causing all kinds of theories to emerge about extraterrestrial intelligence and also causing quite some trouble within the USAF.
In the aftermath of the successful Apollo 11 mission, the thought to go to Mars next and to discover something that wasn’t created by humanity was tempting for many.
After Soviet scientists confirmed the general idea of the report of Dennis, the Air Force finally decided to publish the full report of Andrews, which was more thorough than Dennis’, hoping they could still get some positive feedback for the Air Force.
Of more concern was a report made by engineers of General Electric, who were involved in the development of a combat system, called AEGIS. According to this report, the nature of the interference and the corresponding alert of the BMEWS, was consistent with the detection and targeting procedures of the weapons guidance system from AEGIS.
The initial interference was identified as being a basic tracking phase of a weapon guidance radar, while the phase initiating the alarm, corresponded to the tracking of the Mariner probes by the Martian system.
The public lapped up any news from Mars, imagination running wild. The media was more than willing to satisfy the need for news, though not all was genuine. Psychics, people claiming to have been abducted by Martians and self proclaimed Martian astronauts appeared in tabloid papers, on TV shows, in parks, telling everyone willing to pay about Mars.
Different questions arose in other groups of society, sparking massive controversies that would remain unsolved for decades, some of them turning into smoldering fires waiting to burn with high intensity once given the fuel. Most of these controversies were based on religious and social matters.
President Richard Nixon for one, was glad to see a way to distract the American Public from Vietnam. The possibilities of life on Mars were enough for him to approve NASA’s plans to go to Mars and explore the vicinity of Flaugergues Crater to learn more about the phenomenon.
The NASA Deep Space Network provided a convenient way for first tests and NASA began to work out a sequence of radio signals to be transmitted to Mars to try and establish contact with the object on Mars, named Flaugergues Radio Anomaly One, short FRA-1.
The first transmissions by NASA were sent out in December 1969. The response from Mars was a new increase in the UHF radar interference on Earth, followed by what appeared to be a targeted radio broadcast that was received by the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex. The transmission was definitely artificial, but it was impossible to get any information out of it. Only in the late 1970s it became possible to say that the transmission was encoded using the Trellis modulation for digital information.
But NASA getting a response, was seen as evident proof that there might be something on Mars that reacted to transmissions. That it could be a Soviet Probe making fun of the United States was considered very unlikely, as the Soviets would have used every chance to humiliate the US to the eyes of the world.
That the reaction to NASA’s transmission wasn’t a fluke, was proven by the Soviets early 1970, when they transmitted a message of their own, receiving a reply from Mars in return.
Other nations also tried on their own to get a reaction and succeeded as well, however they too got unintelligible transmissions, all different in minute ways.
For NASA, the confirmation that something interesting was waiting on Mars, was enough to dust off their plans for the Voyager program, which had been part of the Apollo Applications Program and ended in 1968. It had been a study to send a combination of orbiter and lander to Mars. During the preliminary review of the existing plans it was noted that the currently known sources for the radio transmissions could theoretically be used to perform a pinpoint landing on Mars, by using them as radio beacons.
In the meantime, the JPL worked on the Mariner Mars ’71 Project with the Mariner 8 and 9 probes. The need to confirm the discovery and to take the first detailed images of FRA-1 added to the probes weight and scientific loadout. The JPL integrated the Radio and Radar Detection Experiment, but to keep the mass limit of the Atlas Centaur launch vehicle, the main propellant tanks of the Mariner probes had to be reduced in size, limiting the operational lifetime in Mars Orbit.
Mariner 8 was launched on May 9th, 1971, but failed to reach space due to a failure of the Centaur stage of the launch vehicle. Mariner 9 was launched three weeks later on May 30th, succeeding in being injected into a transfer trajectory towards Mars.
The Soviet Union mirrored the United States and prepared additional experiments for the Mars M-71 project, modifying the three projected probes. Two of the three launches succeeded in sending Mars 2 and Mars 3 towards Mars on May 19th and 28th.
Mariner 9 was the first to arrive at Mars, executing its orbital insertion burn November 14th 1971. Even though it launched later, Mariner 9 was able to overtake the Soviet probes, making it the first human created object to enter an orbit around Mars. It was followed by Mars 2 on November 27th and Mars 3 on December 2nd.
On Earth the ‘First Phase Tracking’ that marked the Mariner 6 and 7 flybys could be detected, followed by the ‘Second Phase Tracking’ after the orbital insertion of Mariner 9. What made it interesting was that the ‘Second Phase Tracking’ remained active until December 15th, while the ‘First Phase Tracking’ remained active until January 30th, 1972, indicating that FRA-1 was very patient.
The active transmissions allowed all three probes to do an extensive study of the radar signals, but they were unable to take images of the surface due to a massive dust storm that covered Mars on arrival. The Soviet Union was able to get better data from their instruments, as they were less bound to mass restrictions when compared to Mariner 9.
Additionally, the Soviets were able to claim to have made the first successful landing on Mars with the Mars 3 Lander, after the Mars 2 Lander burned up on reentry. But even that was only a minor side note, as the lander’s first image transmission stopped after about fifteen seconds without any known reason.
Finally all three probes were able to begin their mapping of the Martian surface in mid-January 1972. NASA was the first to receive images of the region of the Flaugergues Crater and NRO specialists on orbital imaging were called in to take a closer look at the structures that previously were only a small dark dot on the Mariner 6 image.
The images of the crater region were made during the periapsis of Mariner 9, allowing the orbiter to make images of the highest resolution of 200 meters per pixel.
The NRO specialists examining the images, noted that the shapes in the image were too complex to be natural formations. The media was quick to name FRA-1 Honore City, based on the fact that the nearby crater was named after Honore Flaugergues, where ‘experts’ claimed that FRA-1 showed all signs of being a city. While the name stuck with the public, NASA kept using FRA-1 in official documents.
The Soviet Union confirmed the discovery three days later, with their own images of FRA-1 at a lower resolution.
What gripped the world however was, that the Soviet Union proclaimed it planned to land a manned mission on Mars before the 75th Anniversary of the October Revolution.