John and Eugene look at the TV movie starring Andy Griffith that inspired countless school children to shoot for the moon: It’s 1979’s Salvage (sometimes referred to as Salvage-1), where the owner of a junkyard builds and launches a rocket ship. Its destination: The Moon.
Harry Broderick is a highly-successful scrap and salvage man with a dream. He wants to build his own rocket, pilot it to the moon, and salvage the Apollo hardware left behind by the manned US moon landings.
He’s been secretly planning this for some time, staffing his salvage yard with ex-NASA engineers with advanced degrees who could not find jobs after NASA layoffs at the end of the Apollo program, and He’s been aggressively pursuing salvage deals and building up his stockpile of cash.
When he broaches the subject with his staff, at first, they think he’s kidding, but soon the ex-NASA staff come around to his way of thinking. They get him in touch with Skip Carmichael, a used car salesman and former backup NASA astronaut, author of the Trans-Linear Vector Principle, and wild card maverick kind of guy with daredevil ideas about space travel. Exactly the kind of guy that NASA keeps on the bench.
Skip explains his Trans-Linear Vector Principle to Harry. Trimming safety margins down from 100% to 85-90%, and using extremely powerful rocket fuel, they can make a single-stage Earth-to-Moon rocket that uses slow and steady constant acceleration to make the trip to the moon in 2 days, without orbiting and without problems with re-entry.
It sounds like a great idea to Harry, but there is one catch: The fuel doesn’t exist, but they can get around that by employing another Ex-NASA engineer now working as a pyrotechnician in Hollywood, Mel Slozar. Mel can create the fuel, and after a mishap on the set, she’s in need of a new job.
What Skip has not mentioned is that Mel and Skip used to be an item back at NASA.
Construction of the rocket begins, as does the development of the fuel. Using a highly explosive substance, mono-hydrazine, Mel can create a fuel many times more efficient than rocket fuel; however, there are some problems she’ll need to work out. It’s extremely unstable at room temperature, and it gives off highly-toxic fumes.
At the local FBI field office, Agent Jack Klinger is alerted to an unusual number of explosives purchases by Mel Slozar, and he goes to Jettison Salvage yard to ask her some questions. She’s a fully licensed explosive handler, and she has the plausible explanation that the explosives were purchased for making movies, not being a terrorist, so Klinger leaves, but not before he gets suspicious about the thing being built behind a tent.
Back at headquarters, Klinger sets up 24-hour surveillance on the salvage yard.
The team also suspects that Klinger is suspicious, and they accelerate their launch plans.
It becomes clear that they cannot launch the spacecraft without a flight computer, which they do not have, so they “steal” computer access, via modem, from Fleming Aeronautics in San Diego.
With a flight computer ready, they test the engines at full power, still behind the tent. The rocket performs well until it doesn’t. The fuel begins to overheat and must be shut down. The test, however, is enough that the top of the rocket has peeped out over the tent, and the FBI have the proof they need to get a search warrant.
Given advance warning about the warrant, they must launch tomorrow, something that will be impossible unless Mel takes Harry’s place on the flight. She is the only one who can handle the fuel if it begins to heat again.
The next morning, they start the launch as the FBI raid. The computer link fails, and Harry calls to abort the mission, but Skip and Mel decide to proceed manually. The launch isn’t going well, but they get into the air, and the flight computer comes back online.
Broadcasting their peaceful, commercial, and downright plucky mission info to the entire world, the crew of the Vulture, as the rocket has been dubbed, captures the imagination of the world. Although the FBI put them under house arrest, they cannot stop them.
Confidentially, the FBI informs Klinger that congressmen and generals are praying for the mission to fail, but if it succeeds, there’s nothing they can do except grin and bear it and buy the salvage back from Harry.
When the rocket arrives at the moon, an inconveniently timed system maintenance at Fleming Aeronautic – still unaware that their computer is being used for the mission – causes the connection to be lost and the flight computer software to be deleted. Skip must land manually, which he does, but the rough landing damages one of the venturi – they will not be able to take off without the flight computer. Nonetheless, they proceed to fill the hold with salvage.
Harry has no choice and goes to Klinger, asking for access to NASA’s flight computers. He bargains with a lowball price on the salvage but has a backup hardball game with an offer from the Russians to buy the salvage and provide the flight computer. Klinger agrees.
With NASA on the job, they’re soon able to take off, but a coolant leak soon causes the temperature of the mono-hydrazine fuel to rise dangerously. Mel diverts their oxygen supply as a backup coolant, but they have very little left to breathe and soon pass out.
On Earth, Klinger has learned that the ship is full of mono-hydrazine and heading straight for Los Angeles. He calls in Air Defense to destroy the rocket if they cannot get in touch with the crew. Using an uplink, Harry’s team blows open a vent cover when the ship reaches the atmosphere. This wakes them but starts filling the cabin with toxic fumes. The vent cover is resealed.
Awake now, Skip manages to break open the window of the airlock, letting fresh air in. Relieved, Klinger calls off the air attack with only seconds left.
Slightly off course and below the horizon from NASA’s telemetry, Skip must once again land the ship manually, this time in a busy downtown park. With the world watching the Vulture and her crew triumphantly come home.
Later that night, they are sad that it is over and contemplate going on with their lives apart from one another when a man from the government arrives with a proposal right up their alley.