Riders to the Stars (1954)
In an attempt to discover the composition of meteors, three astronauts are sent out into space in three specially designed rockets. Their mission is to capture a meteor and bring it to Earth.
In the mid-1950's, American scientists determine that they require metal from meteors if they are to build spacecraft that can withstand the rigors of space travel. To that end they recruit 12 scientists and ask them to undergo a series of tests. The men don't quite know exactly what they are being tested for but in the end, three are selected to go into space. The mission is a success, but not all will return.
- Opening narrative by Dr Donald Stanton (Herbert Marshall) describes an experimental launch and return of a rocket test. Men then race in jeeps across a desert searching for the instrument pack thats returned to Earth. They find the pack and approach in radiation suits to retrieve the device.
At a scientific meeting, Dr Stanton discusses how metal fragments from the rocket have changed during the flight. Dr Jane Flynn (Martha Hyer) suggests that the metal has weakened because of exposure to cosmic rays. Shes puzzled how meteors survive such conditions for millions of years. The mention of meteors sparks an idea for Stanton and he contacts the Pentagon to try and get funding for a new mission
The Pentagon runs a computer program and comes up with 12 men who may be able to help with the mission. Security agent OHerli (King Donovan) first visits Dr Richard Stanton (William Lundigan) head of an electronics research department. He is invited by the government to go out and spend a week in California; the security officer admits he knows no more other than the details of the invitation.
OHerli then contacts Dr Jerry Lockwood (Richard Carlson) a mathematician, OHerli makes the same offer with the added information everyone should be back to their old jobs in a week or so
Jerry then visits his girlfriend, a photographic model Susan Manners (Dawn Addams) He explains the offer the government made, but knows little about it. Jerry begins to feel worried about the future and asks Susan to marry him. She is non committal about the prospect, and Jerry leaves for California more confused than ever about the relationship
Stanton, Lockwood and 10 other men who have also been contacted by OHerli meet at an abandoned army base in California, they are under orders not to discuss their various areas of expertise
Dr Paul Drayden (George Eldredge) Dr Delmar (Lawrence Dobkin) and Dr Flynn greet the men and explains they are at the Snake Mountain Proving grounds, operated by the Office for Scientist Investigation. Flynn then escorts the men to a holding room, where they handed disclaimers allowing them to be tested in unspecified ways. As they settle in, one of the Doctors, McBride is asked to go with Delmar. A previous conversation between Drayden and OHerli suggests he is not suitable for the program.
Drayden reports to Stanton that McBride has been declared unfit. Stanton is disappointed he was banking on McBrides astrophysics ability. He begins to scan the rest of the list. We discover that Richard Stanton is the directors son. Drayden asks if he should be dropped from the program, Stanton says no. He deserves as good a chance as anyone
Back in the holding room everyone is watching each other, trying to figure who is who and what they are doing. Lockwood confides in Stanton he thinks everyone in the room is connected somehow with electrons. Stanton acts dumb as if he has no idea what an electron is.
After a couple of hours, Dr Fuller becomes frantic when he discovers they are locked in He then admits to being claustrophobic. Another man suddenly knocks on a private door and is allowed to leave. We discover he is Dr Klinger (Michael Fox) the project psychologist He recommends Fuller be cut from the program because of his claustrophobia. He also suggests Guinness and Wells be also cut for various reasons, bringing the remaining total of candidates to 8. Delmar agrees with the decisions with the exception of Wells who he insists should remain.
As they are escorted to their sleeping quarters Stanton and Flynn have a short conversation. She admits to being a trained pilot, but never had the time to check out jets. Flynn then explains the holding room was actually an experiment, and clearly Stanton passed. She then tells him about the gravity test the next morning. The test is capable of producing 12 gee acceleration.
The first two men through the centrifuge reaches 9 gees before passing out. Drayden is concerned this will not be enough and from the remaining 6 candidates they have to find 4 that can pass. Dr Stanton is the next to take the test. Stanton is instructed to follow a series of experiments to test his flight reflexes, and is given a capsule to swallow only when instructed.
The machine reaches 12 gees and Dr Stanton seems to complete all the tasks given to him including swallowing the capsule. Drayden and Flynn agree that they may have their first candidate for the program Dr Stanton Senior calls a meeting of the four remaining men who made it through the test. He shows them the brittle remains of the spacecraft that went into space at the beginning of the film. He compares it to a meteorite.
He explains the mission they are proposing involves going into space and capturing a meteor before it enters the atmosphere. Stanton is convinced meteors must have some sort of cover to protect them from cosmic rays; this cover is burned off during entry into the Earths atmosphere.
Dr Stanton then hands each remaining man an envelope, asks them to consider for a week if they are interested then mail in their answer. Wells (Kem Dibbs) refuses point blank to be involved, he hates the idea there could be military applications. Dr Gordon (Robert Karnes) signs on the spot.Stanton junior and Lockwood decide to think about it a little longer.
The two are joined by Flynn at the officers mess for coffee. Flynn explains that it was Stanton Senior who got her interested in space medicine, she goes on to describe how she imagines a flight into space. Stanton wonders how she could be so sure of a successful flight.
As he discusses how he feels he reaches a decision and signs his letter. A brief romantic moment passes between Flynn and Stanton and it is clear something might develop.
Stanton then shows the men a film of two mice launched into space and successfully returned to Earth, he goes on to explain that the observatory at Mount Palomar is tracking a suitable swarm of meteor which will be in reach of intercept in two weeks. The training of the three men begins as final assembly of the rocket is rushed forward. Its constantly stressed how precise all actions flying the ships has to be, specifically the operation of the meteor scoop used to capture the meteors for return to Earth
Dr Lockwood is called to Stanton seniors office to be questioned over the reasons for volunteering for the mission. He is question about his relationship with Susan and his desire to marry her. The program is aware she refused his offer, and they are worried about his emotional state. Dr Delmar wonders if suicide is on Lockwoods mind. Lockwood reinforces his desire to fly the rocket. He admits he may still have wanted to go even if shed said yes to his proposal.
Mount Palomar finally sends through the data the project needs and the launch is scheduled for early the next morning. Stanton senior goes over the final briefing of the mission. The accent stage will take a little over 5 minutes. Once in orbit the speed differential will be very low and should prove no problem for the team to capture a meteor. The return breaking process will be controlled by 10 explosive charges. Ground control can advise the best time to use those charges, but ultimately it will be at the pilots discretion. The whole mission should only take 15 minutes
Stanton says a final goodbye to Flynn, she is as nervous as the crew. Stanton admits he is not feeling very brave and needs his ego boosted. Asking Flynn for a final kiss, she is more than happy to oblige and hints she had waiting for such a question for some time.
Each of the men is strapped into their individual machines and awaits the final countdown. All three rockets launch without incident. The ships reach orbit as the observatory confirms the meteors are still on course. Mission control contacts the three craft but Stanton initially fails to respond, after a few nervous moments he recovers from the black out and responds. He begins to describe the Earth until Stanton tells him to stop sightseeing and get on with the mission
The meteors come into range and the three astronauts work to intercept them. Gordon is the first to line up a meteor, but the ground warns the target is too large. Gordon ignores them and attempts to snatch the meteor. The rock is too large impacts the ship and Gordon is killed instantly.
Stanton reports whats happened and is shocked as Gordons body floats past his viewer. Lockwood sees the same and has a mental breakdown and begins to panic. He thinks he back in WW2 and begins to try and return to Earth, thinking he is in plane he tries release himself so he can bail out of the rocket. As he struggles to get out of his chair he accidentally fires rockets
The last rocket left, Stantons reports Lockwood had both his forward and rear engines firing and was spinning off into space. Stanton is still under control and begins to bring the rocket back to Earth. Stanton notices a stray meteor approaching. He thinks he might have a chance to still capture a meteor. And moves in to try and intercept the rock. To his surprise Stanton succeeds in grabbing the meteor and begins the process of getting back to Earth
They know he is going to come in a bit fast because he used to many rockets capturing the meteor. He needs to let the rocket get deeper into the atmosphere so he can nose the ship and decelerate. The heat inside the suit becomes intolerable and his helmet mists up stopping him from seeing the instruments.
Stanton begins trying to fire the landing rockets but he used them all up capturing the meteor. All he can do is to try flying the rocket like an airplane and wash away speed and heat. He eventually gets some control of the rocket. He manages to land but the impact was extremely heavy. No one is sure if he has survived
Emergency teams get to the wreck and pull him out. He regains consciousness long enough to kiss Flynn.
Stanton senior inspects the meteor thats been brought back and realizes the covering they were hoping to find is there, and identified as crystallized carbon.
They realize this unlocks the secret too long term trips in space