Re-Entry Forbidden was yet another story which was very much of its time. During the late 1960’s and early 1970’s NASA’s numerous space missions had extensive television coverage and Re-Entry Forbidden taps into this by having Michael Aspel and James Burke play themselves at the start of the story.
The story was transmitted in March 1970, and the real-life problems encountered by Apollo 13 happened only a month later. Although this could be seen as an example of prescient writing on behalf of the production team, it’s fair to say that space stories did seem to be popular at the time. The Doctor Who story The Ambassadors of Death was also in production and has a solid connection to Re-Entry Forbidden since both productions agreed to split the cost of the space capsule and re-use it in both series.
Dick Larch (Michael McGovern) is the first British astronaut to journey into space. He’s part of a three man crew piloting the NASA module Sunfire 1, along with American colleagues Bill Edwards (Craig Hunter) and Max Freedman (Noel Sheldon). During re-entry, Larch is given the task of punching the co-ordinates into the computer. He makes an error, unnoticed by his colleagues and Mission Control, which causes the module to drift off course. Corrected co-ordinates are fed to Sunfire 1, but the last minute adjustments could make their return to Earth something of a “a hot ride down.”
Quist and the rest of the Doomwatch team are following the events on television. Quist is concerned that there would be enough radioactive fuel on-board the module to create a major disaster, although James Burke reassures anxious viewers at home that there would be no danger of radioactive fall out. The capsule splashes down safely and while Quist is happy there wasn’t any radioactive contamination he seems disinterested about the fate of the astronauts. This puzzles Ridge, especially since Dick Larch was a student of Quist’s and Quist was responsible for providing Larch with a reference when he applied to join the space programme.
Although all three astronauts are unharmed, Larch seems to be in a slightly odd mood. He snaps at his wife Carol (Veronica Larch) and doesn’t respond well to the questions of NASA psychologist Doctor Charles Goldsworthy (Joseph Fürst). Goldsworthy visits Quist and suggests he conducts some tests on Larch to see if he can identify any problem areas. Quist isn’t keen as he believes that Goldsworthy is organising a witch-hunt to find somebody to blame for the re-entry error. “Scapegoat without reason, draped in the Union Jack” as Quist says. But eventually he agrees and Larch is invited to the Doomwatch office.
The tests are inconclusive, but Quist can console himself with the fact that Larch won’t be part of the next mission. Several months pass and Carol visits the Doomwatch office. She’s come to thank Quist for apparently giving her husband a clean bill of health. During the conversation Quist is concerned to learn that the same crew on Sunfire 1 will also be piloting Sunfire 2, due for blast-off shortly.
Toby chats with Carol and wonders whether being the first British astronaut put an extra strain on her husband. Carol agrees and ponders if this was the reason why he was so edgy. Toby asks her to elaborate and apparently he blamed everybody else for the error – even her. This example of his behaviour concerns Quist and he, Ridge and Carol travel to the tracking station. Once there, Quist is quite blunt. “We have evidence that Larch is a schizophrenic paranoiac and could endanger the mission. Over.”
Disastrously, this message is accidentally broadcast to the capsule and the astronauts sit in stunned silence, just as the re-entry co-ordinates are read out to them. Larch attempts to leave his seat to input the co-ordinates, there’s something of a struggle and the window to input the data is lost. The capsule seems doomed and Command Pilot Bill Edwards broadcasts a final message to Houston.
We have missed the corridor due to my error and my error alone. … What you may have seen just now on your screen… Dick Larch is a friend of mine. We are not judged by how we die, but by how we have lived…
Re-Entry Forbidden is a human drama where the Doomwatch team have to take something a back seat. Dick Larch is the central character here and the whole story revolves around him. What’s captured very well is the national and political tensions that the original re-entry creates. Whilst there may be some suspicion that Larch was responsible for the error, there’s no proof and the Americans are well aware of the potential political fall-out if they accuse, without solid evidence, the only British member of the team.
It does stretch credibility to breaking point that nobody spoke to Carol about her husband and also that she didn’t discuss her concerns with anyone. Had this happened then it’s probable the tragedy would have been avoided. Quist should also shoulder some of the blame – he was fairly detached throughout the story, much more concerned with the problems that would arise from radioactive fallout than with the possible physiological stresses encountered by the astronauts.
Because it never feels like a Doomwatch story, there’s something a little unsatisfying about Re-Entry Forbidden. It’s not really possible to feel any empathy with Dick Larch and the catalogue of blunders that lead to the fatal error – did nobody spot that he might not be A1? – feels a little contrived.