In the eve of a U.S. presidential election, NASA discovers concrete proof of extraterrestrial life within a meteorite in the Milne Ice Shelf. The discovery gains overwhelming political importance because NASA's gross expenditure and low yield is the hottest topic of debate. To verify the authenticity of the evidence, the president sends a team of five carefully chosen individuals: four scientists– Michael Tolland, Corky Marlinson, Norah Mangor and Wailee Ming – and a National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) employee, Rachel Sexton, daughter of Senator Sexton the presidential candidate.
The authenticity of the discovery seems beyond doubt. But when the team discovers a seemingly insignificant anomaly, a Delta Force team that was secretly monitoring them attacks, killing Ming and Mangor while leaving Rachel, Tolland and Marlinson to perish on an ice floe. The three, however, are picked up by the Navy submarine USS Charlotte and manage to inform the president's adviser– Marjorie Tench – and the NRO director – William Pickering – about the incident. Tench hushes up their report while Pickering takes it seriously and sends them an air transport.
Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., Tench tries to hurt Sexton's campaign through his aide, Gabrielle Ashe. She attempts to blackmail Gabrielle with photos of her extramarital affair with Senator Sexton and reveals that the senator's sponsors are private aerospace corporations who would reap profit from taking NASA's place. A distraught Ashe investigates the claims and discovers that they are true; but also finds out that NASA had lied about the origin of their discovery.
The surviving researchers retreat to Tolland's research ship off the New Jersey coast where they fully re-analyze their data and discover that the meteorite is fake. A surprise attack by the Delta Force team however, prompts Rachel to fax the result of the analysis to her father, asking for help. In the ensuing skirmish, all Delta Force soldiers are killed, their helicopter is sunk, and Pickering is revealed to be their commander. He tells Rachel about her father's true motivations for becoming President, and that he (Pickering) masterminded the fake meteorite to hurt Senator Sexton's campaign. The ship and Pickering are sucked in by a vortex, while a Coast Guard Osprey picks up Rachel, Tolland and Marlinson.
Senator Sexton attempts to publicize Rachel's fax, incriminating the president and NASA. However, during his press conference, Rachel and Gabrielle swap the envelopes containing copies of Rachel's fax with those containing evidences of his extramarital affairs, humiliating him and ruining his chances for the presidency. By the end of the story, Michael and Rachel have developed a romantic relationship.