Astronauts Charles Brubaker, John Walker, and Peter Willis (James Brolin, O.J. Simpson, and Sam Waterston, respectively) are hailed as heroes when they become the first men to be rocketed to Mars. Actually the space travelers are as phony as their mission controller, Dr. James Kelloway (Hal Holbrook); to avert a failure that might cost the space program its funding, the Mars-bound vessel has been sent up without a crew, while the helmeted astronauts sit on a movie soundstage, pretending to be in outer space for the benefit of the TV cameras. Unfortunately the Mars ship crashes on arrival, making the astronaut trio thoroughly expendable. Investigative reporter Robert Caulfield (Elliott Gould), who's smelled a rat all along, races against time to prevent NASA from "terminating" the hapless astronauts in order to cover up the conspiracy.