In 1981 NASA is televising the first landing on Mars of Voyager 1. Astronaut Colonel Brice Randolph (Monte Markham) is on the planet surface when communication is cut off. At home watching on television is Brice’s pregnant wife, Gail Randolph (Susan Clark), when the transmission stops. At NASA, Kurt Anderson (Jackie Cooper) and John Phillips (Robert Lansing) learn that Brice died on the surface of Mars of a yet unknown cause. Astronaut Dave Higgins (James Sikking) never left the capsule and is safe from whatever was in the atmosphere that killed Brice. He heads back to Earth.
NASA has to do some quick thinking before Higgins arrives back on Earth. The president of the United States has never been keen on the space project. Finding out that an astronaut died on the planet’s surface would jeopardize any budget allotment the space program needs to continue their work. Before he left, Brice was concerned that something may go wrong with the project and so he convinced Anderson and Phillips to make alternate plans should the need arise. The contingent plan is called ER 1. With Brice now dead they implement ER 1.
ER 1 stands for Eddie Reese 1. Eddie Reese is a former pilot who looks almost exactly like Brice. The plan is to perform plastic surgery on Eddie, and train him in Brice’s mannerisms, and then have him pretend to be Brice in order to show that the Mars trip was a success. Later they would pretend that Brice died in a boating accident and give Reese a new identity. The capsule with Dave on board splashes down away from the scheduled pickup area. A helicopter picks him up with Eddie already on board. They are then delivered to the carrier that was supposed to pick them up. Only a few people know about the switch.
Things get complicated when Brice’s wife realizes that the man she is living with is not her husband. Things are further complicated when Brice and Gail begin to fall in love with each other despite the fact that Eddie’s charade will soon come to an end. Then the Russians add a bigger and final unforeseen complication to the plan.
“The Astronaut” was released in 1972 and was directed by Robert Michael Lewis. It is an American made for television science fiction drama. It was done as an ABC movie of the week.
The movie feels like an alternate version of “Capricorn One” 1977 even though it was done five years earlier, or a reimagining of “Journey to the Far Side of the Sun” 1969. The closer it got to the end, the more intense it got. I think the reason the movie works is due to the human element and the emotions between Eddie and Gail. The drama element in the film supersedes the science fiction element and gives it a genuine feel. This is a movie from which conspiracy theories spring.
Real-life astronaut Wally Schirra has a cameo role. Schirra was an American naval aviator, test pilot, and NASA astronaut. In 1959, he was one of the original seven astronauts chosen for Project Mercury.