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In the late twentieth century, on a circular space station one thousand miles from Earth, Capt. Barney Merritt informs his father, Col. Samuel T. Merritt, the station's commanding officer, that he has requested a transfer, as he misses his wife and is tired of life on the "wheel." Reminding Barney that he has space "in his blood," Sam dismisses his complaints and refuses to approve the transfer. Meanwhile, near the station, Sgt. Roy Cooper is putting the finishing touches on a spaceship the station's crew has been building for the last year when he suddenly becomes paralyzed. Fellow sergeants Jackie Siegle, of Brooklyn, New York, and Imoto transport Roy to the station's sick bay, where he soon recovers. Although the doctor assures Roy that he is healthy, he tells Sam privately that Roy has suffered a bout of "space fever," which will recur unless he is returned to Earth. After leaving sick bay, Sam has an attack of dizziness, but says nothing about it. In their quarters, Roy confesses to Siegle, Imoto and Eastern European crew member Sgt. Andre Fodor, all of whom are volunteers in a special program, his fears that his paralysis will jeopardize his chances of being selected for the spaceship's as yet undisclosed mission. Siegle, Imoto and Fodor try to reassure Roy, but Roy continues to worry, even while he and the other volunteers dine on their multi-flavored space pellets in the mess hall. During the meal, one older volunteer, the Irish Sgt. Mahoney, who has served with Sam since the Korean War, disparages Barney as an ingrate unworthy of his father's devotion. Roy then becomes upset when Sam sends him a real steak dinner, as he believes that the colonel is testing his resolve. Moments later, the station begins to pitch violently due to an astronomical storm, and fires break out below. The well-trained crew soon has the flames extinguished and the station repaired. Later, scientist Dr. George Fenton arrives from Earth and informs Sam that not only has he been promoted to general but the new spaceship's mission has changed. Fenton, who helped design the station, reveals that instead of going to the moon, as originally planned, the ship will travel to Mars. When Sam protests that his men are not ready for such an ambitious mission, Fenton counters that because of the Earth's depleted resources and Sam's age, they must go now. Sam's concerns abate somewhat when Barney tears up his transfer papers and declares he is accompanying Sam to Mars. That night, Sam briefs the volunteer group about the mission, noting that the ship will hold only five men. After Sam identifies Imoto, Siegle and Fodor as the additional men he would like to have on the dangerous mission, all three volunteer. Just before the ship blasts off, the crew is honored during a live television program, broadcast from Earth. Once the ship reaches a 20,000 miles per hour cruising speed, the men discover the devoted Mahoney stowed away on board. Later, Sam reads Barney some passages from the Bible and wonders whether they are about to "invade" God's domain. Although Barney tries to convince his father of the mission's greater purpose, Sam remains skeptical. Sam's unease grows when the ship is almost descimated by an asteroid and Fodor, who is outside doing repairs, is killed when he is struck by a meteorite. In space, Sam says last rights over Fodor's body, and as the ship nears Mars, Sam's biblical mutterings become increasingly hysterical. Just before landing on Mars, Sam, at the controls, suddenly reverses directions, jeopardizing the crew's safety. Barney grabs the controls from his demented father and crash-lands the ship, then he, Imoto and Siegle take man's first steps on Mars. Imoto, a native of Japan who wants to help his people find new sources of food, inspects the Mars soil and declares it fertile. As Imoto plants some flower seeds, however, Sam begins to drain the ship's water supply. When Barney tries to stop him, Sam pulls a gun, and during the ensuing struggle, Barney accidentally shoots and kills his father. Mahoney witnesses the fight's final moments and accuses Barney of murdering Sam. Despite Mahoney's rancor, the men, who know they cannot leave Mars for at least a year, pull together, conserving their precious water supply. Then on Christmas, with the water tanks near empty, snow begins to fall. Surprised but relieved, the crew vacuums the snow into the tanks, ensuring they will have enough water until take-off. Sometime later, as they are about to leave Mars, Imoto discovers that the flower seed he planted months before has sprouted. Just then, however, an earthquake hits, almost toppling the ship and making take-off impossible. The earthquake exposes a series of crevices just below the planet's surface, and Barney gets the idea to use the rocket's jets to blast open the soil underneath them and right the ship. Although they must blast off before they are harnessed, the men survive take-off, and the ship heads for home. Impressed by Barney's courage and resourcefulness, Mahoney finally forgives him for Sam's death and announces that when they get back to Earth, they will all say that Sam died a great hero.