Today marks the 40th anniversary of the launch of the Apollo 11 mission, the spaceflight that landed the first men on the moon. The United States has a pretty good record in spaceflight: we have never lost an American in space*… at least in reality. Cinema has been less kind to us.
This list presents five bad spaceflights. The rules: they all had to take place within our solar system, leaving epically terrible trips like the Nostromo’s in Alien right out. And for the sake of keeping reality and movies apart, I’m leaving Apollo 13 out of it.
Capricorn One (1978)
Ship: Capricorn One
Crew: Brubaker, Willis, Walker
Astronaut Body Count: 2
This spaceflight is so bad it never even happens. NASA’s first manned trip to Mars gets scrubbed because of a problem with the life support system, so the space agency makes the only rational call: they fake the landing. The astronauts do it up on a soundstage, and are held away from the public for months, which is how long the trip would take. But they soon find out that their trip has a tragic ending – NASA is going to fake the ship’s destruction on re-entry and kill the astronauts. And so the most motley crew ever – James Brolin! Sam Waterston! OJ SIMPSON! And investigative journalist Elliott Gould! – must escape the fiendish clutches of NASA and their crack assassins.
Silent Running (1972)
Ship: Valley Forge
Crew: Lowell, Keenan, Barker, Wolf
Destination: Just hanging around the orbit of Saturn
Astronaut Body Count: 4
Bruce Dern and three robot buddies – Huey, Dewey and Louie – are the caretakers of Earth’s last forests, which are being held in giant domes out in space. The plan is to one day reforest the environmentally ravaged planet with these trees. But Dern soon gets orders to destroy the forests and return his ship to the main fleet where it can be used to haul cargo; our hero defies orders, kills the other people on his ship and takes off from the fleet, but in doing so ends up on a collision course with the rings of Saturn.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Ship: Discovery One
Crew: Bowman, Poole, three others
Astronaut Body Count: 4
A manned mission to Jupiter becomes a very quiet massacre when the onboard AI gets a twist in its circuits. Fucking HAL. I mean, if it wasn’t for the computer going absolutely apeshit not only would this movie not be on the list, but old Frank Poole could have also become a Starchild, to say nothing of the other astronauts in suspended animation. The good news for the really nerdy amongst you is that Frank Poole got brought back to life a thousand years later in the novel 3001: The Final Odyssey. Still, this mission could have resulted in a whole race of Star Children if it wasn’t for the shitty programming skills of Dr. Heywood Floyd.
Ship: Ironman One
Crew: Pruett, Lloyd, Stone
Destination: Returning to Earth after leaving orbiting space station
Astronaut Body Count: 1
Hey, remember when I said I wouldn’t have Apollo 13 on this list? Why would I, when I have this perfectly good astronauts trapped in space film that came out before that event (Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell apparently took his wife to see the film before he launched. Smooth)? You would think that a spaceship containing James Franciscus, Gene Hackman and Richard Crenna would be dramatic enough, but things get really hairy when the ship’s thrusters break and they can’t re-enter Earth’s atmosphere. The trio is trapped in Earth orbit with quickly depleting oxygen supplies, and it soon becomes obvious that if all three stay in the ship, all three will die before help arrives. But if one man should die… Marooned may be better known to some of you as Space Travelers, the title it had when it was made fun of on Mystery Science Theater 3000.
Planet of the Apes (1968)
Crew: Taylor, Stewart, Landon, Dodge
Destination: Deep space
Astronaut Body Count: 3
In Planet of the Apes the identity of NASA has been cleverly concealed under the name ANSA, but it’s still our good old space program. Charlton Heston, two other dudes and a lady are shot into space at transwarp speed; they’ll get to another solar system thousands of years after everyone they knew on Earth was dead, and once they’re there I guess they’re supposed to run a train on the woman., Stewart and start a new society or something. Anyway, it doesn’t quite turn out as they hoped – not only does Stewart’s life support system fail while they’re in hibernation, it turns out they never even left Earth’s orbit! They crash on Earth in the distant future and find that humans have become mute slaves and that apes rule everything. In the sequel Charlton Heston blows up the whole planet. There were three more films after that.
* yeah, this is sort of a technicality, as we have lost many astronauts on take-off, re-entry and even on the landing pad, but the cold blackness of space has taken none of our American lives!