Both manned space flight and routine intercontinental air travel have occurred within the last one hundred years of our history. And as the success of the space shuttle program from 1981 to 2011 shows us, it is not entirely out of the possibility that in some of our own lifetimes, routine sub-orbital flight of the hypersonic variety might occur as well. But as with any technology of this kind, there are always dangers. This is the premise of the made-for-TV science fiction/air disaster movie STARFLIGHT ONE, which first aired on ABC-TV on February 27, 1983 under the title STARFLIGHT: THE PLANE THAT COULDN'T LAND.
The premise of what some might call an extension of the AIRPORT films of the 1970s is that of a hypersonic aircraft, capable not only of breaking the sound barrier (like the Concorde, which was unfortunately grounded in 2000), but of also reaching very high into the atmosphere to sub-orbital heights. Tests conducted on the craft's rockets, which propel it to the heights necessary for trans-global travel, however, prove unsatisfactory to the craft's designer (Hal Linden), but the head (Ray Milland) of the aerospace firm that built Starflight insists on it launching on time for its maiden voyage from Palmdale International Airport, in the desert north of Los Angeles, to Sydney, Australia. The craft, captained by Lee Majors, with help from his fellow crewmen (Michael Sachs; Gary Bayer), initially operates as it should; but an illegal rocket launch from Australia, in which the rocket self-destructs, scatters debris in the path of the plane; and when a piece of debris penetrates the part of the craft where the rocket connections are, Starflight soars much higher than it was ever intended to go. And once the rockets burn out, the craft and its sixty passengers find themselves stranded in zero gravity at a height of 87.5 miles above the ground, and just slightly above the lid of Earth's atmosphere. In effect, they are trapped in space.
Attempts to get Starflight One's passengers off are fraught with peril; and several of them do perish. Linden, however, who was also onboard and who knows what the plane can do, manages to get back down to the ground to assist in efforts being coordinated with NASA and their space shuttle Columbia to get fuel back into the aircraft and get it down before its orbit decays, and to allow for repairs on the damaged rocket cables. The one problem is that, because Starflight wasn't designed for space flight, it doesn't have a heat shield to protect it; thus, the possibility of both the craft and its crew being incinerated is extremely real, and one remaining trump card must be played.
In essence, STARFLIGHT ONE combines the basic structure of the AIRPORT films (including 1977's AIRPORT '77, which this film's director Jerry Jameson also helmed), combined with the scenario of the 1969 big-screen sci-fi melodrama MAROONED, in which three astronauts find themselves stranded in their spacecraft high above the Earth when the craft's retro-rockets refuse to work properly. The movie has the usual disaster film line-up of stars for this, including Robert Webber, Gail Strickland, George DiCenzo, Terry Kiser, Pat Corley, Peter Jason, and Stephen Keep; but for the most part, the usual soap opera sub-plots are kept to a bare minimum. Admittedly, not all of the scenarios used are completely believable (for one, it would still be nearly impossible to even use all four shuttles, let alone Columbia, to effect that kind of a rescue), and not all the special effects are as convincing as they should be (most notably a long tunnel used in one rescue operation that looks like a rubber vacuum hose). Otherwise, however, they are quite good, which probably shouldn't be so surprising, given as they were supervised by John Dykstra, who worked on STAR WARS and STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, along with Terry Frazee, who worked on "1941", RAID ON ENTEBBE, and BLADE RUNNER, along with Gene Warren as a special consultant.
With its various attendant flaws and its obvious made-for-TV origins (it was released theatrically overseas), no one's going to put this film in masterpiece status by any stretch of the imagination. Nevertheless, for what it is, STARFLIGHT ONE nevertheless has enough stuff to recommend it, especially given that hypersonic and sub-orbital passenger flights are slowly but surely approaching the day when they will become real. As this film amply demonstrates, and as the tragedies of Challenger, Columbia, and Apollo 204 demonstrated in real life, there are also inherent risks in this kind of technological ambition as well.