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The Amundsen-Scott station, covered by a 16-meter-high geodesic dome.

Medical Mission to South Pole Under Way

An Air Force jet left for the South Pole today to drop medical supplies to a research station whose doctor may have breast cancer. Except for e-mail and phone links, the station is cut off from other Antarctic bases until late October. Evacuation is impossible, because temperatures of -60°C might freeze the hydraulic fluid or mechanical parts of any plane that lands.

A staff of 41 technicians and construction workers is spending the Antarctic winter at the National Science Foundation's (NSF's) Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, maintaining scientific equipment and building a new station. After the 47-year-old doctor noticed a lump in one of her breasts in mid-June, NSF officials consulted experts at the National Cancer Institute and private physicians. The patient--NSF has not released her name but other sources confirm she's a physician--and her doctors decided on a course of drugs until she can be airlifted out for further tests in October. "This was the best option, given that her condition is not an immediate threat to her health or the safety of others," says NSF spokesperson Mary Hanson.

Early on 8 July, a C-141 Starlifter took off from McChord Air Force Base in Tacoma, Washington, loaded with six cargo pallets and a CBS television crew that intends to film the operation. After refueling in Hawaii, the plane will head to Christchurch, New Zealand. On Sunday, it will depart for the pole, accompanied by a refueling plane. Meanwhile, South Pole station crew will ignite barrels of diesel fuel to light the runway. Once over the drop zone, Air Force crew will shove the pallets out a side door. Attached strobe lights will help those on the ground track the parachutes.

The pallets contain drugs--NSF declined to specify which ones--as well as two microscopes, digital cameras, and video conferencing equipment for monitoring the patient. One pallet contains about 220 kilograms of fresh fruit and 5 months' worth of mail. "That's a morale booster for the crew," says Sam Feola, director of logistics for Antarctic Support Associates, NSF's civilian contractor, based in Englewood, Colorado.