August 9, 2015
The X-Files 1.9, Space: Houston, We Have a Face
Summary: In a 1977 video from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, a reporter tells us that a team has taken the first close-up photos of Mars. The photos prove that there’s water on the planet, as well as a formation that looks like a human face. NASA denies that it means there is alien life on Mars. Lt. Col. Marcus Belt talks about strong solar winds on the planet.
At home, Belt looks at the picture of the facial formation before going to bed. He dreams about the space mission, in which an astronaut announced that there was something outside the shuttle. When Belt wakes up, he sees the facial formation swooping down at him from his ceiling.
In the present day, NASA centers in Houston and Cape Canaveral oversee a shuttle launch. Belt is present. With three seconds left on the countdown, liftoff is aborted. Two weeks later, Mulder tells Scully that someone from NASA wants to meet with them. They encounter Michelle Generoo, the mission control space commander from the aborted liftoff. She tells them she thinks the mission was sabotaged.
Michelle explains that if someone hadn’t aborted the mission, the shuttle might have exploded on the launch pad. There’s evidence of tampering, but sabotage would have required extreme heat, and wouldn’t have gone undetected. Michelle’s fiancé is the shuttle commander on a mission scheduled for the next day, so she’s eager to make sure everything’s safe.
Mulder and Scully head to Houston, discussing why someone would want to sabotage a space mission. Mulder points out that space travel is a big symbol of “American progress and prosperity.” Plus, some people might want to get rid of a shuttle built in the ’70s. Oh, and then there are some who would want to keep people out of space so they can’t find evidence of alien life.
On their way to meet Belt, Mulder tells Scully that Belt was on Gemini VIII, a mission that ended with an emergency landing. Belt is a childhood hero of Mulder’s, so the agent is happy to meet him. Scully asks Belt about the damaged equipment from the aborted mission, and he denies any possibility of sabotage. He assures her that everything is secure for the next mission. Mulder just wants to watch liftoff.
The agents move on to a NASA employee who analyzes materials used in spacecraft. He didn’t see the damaged equipment ahead of time, but he’s sure the upcoming mission is safe. He notes that Belt gets the final say on any mission going forward. The agents wonder if Belt lied about how much he knew before the aborted mission. Mulder thinks the x-ray of the damaged equipment is fake.
Eight hours later, everyone prepares for liftoff, with Michelle at the controls again. The shuttle launches successfully and everyone’s happy, especially Mulder. But later, Michelle chases down the agents and tells them that something went wrong and the shuttle has gone down. They follow Michelle back to Houston, driving through a rainstorm. The face from Mars swoops into Michelle’s car, making her crash.
The agents rescue Michelle from her overturned car and she tells them about the face. In Houston, mission control tries to get in touch with the shuttle astronauts. Someone thinks the communications devices are being manipulated from Houston. Mulder and Scully guard Michelle as she goes up to check on the equipment. They find someone who says there’s something wrong with a telemetry unit. Michelle translates: Something or someone is jamming communications.
Belt decides that they need to shut down telemetry and let the astronauts take control of the system on their end. Michelle worries that it won’t work and the astronauts will be abandoned. Belt sticks with his plan, so Michelle tells her fiancé, David, that they’re going to temporarily cut off contact. They do, and after a minute goes by with no contact from the astronauts, mission control turns their system back on. Fortunately, everything’s working now.
Belt goes to calm down, staring at his face in a mirror, then gives a press conference. Michelle admits to Scully that if Belt’s plan hadn’t worked, the shuttle would have been stuck in space, “a ghost ship stuck in orbit.” He had to take the risk because if the men hadn’t come back with their payload, they would be out millions of dollars, and Congress would shut down the space program. Belt doesn’t let the public know that anything went wrong.
Mulder chases down his childhood hero, who knows that Mulder’s wondering how much he lies. Belt says that space exploration is dangerous; it used to be revered, but now only failures make the news. Mulder asks if Belt thinks the shuttle was sabotaged. Belt replies that his only concern is bringing the astronauts home safely.
Belt goes home to sleep, and again has the dream about the astronaut saying something’s outside the shuttle. As he sleeps, Belt’s face morphs back and forth into the Mars face. He wakes up to see it vaporizing and flying out the window, turning into the shape of a body.
Up on the shuttle, an astronaut tells mission control that there’s something outside the orbiter. Michelle learns that there’s an oxygen leak. Someone else spots something gaseous, which Mulder tells Scully is what happened on Belt’s mission. Speaking of Belt, he’s 90 minutes late to deal with the payload. Michelle orders someone to give her the worst-case scenario so they can prepare.
Mulder and Scully go looking for Belt, who doesn’t look great. He gives the astronauts instructions to put on their spacesuits and deliver the payload. Michelle objects – he’s putting lives in danger for money. Belt tells her to leave if she can’t get on board, so she walks out. Scully agrees with her that Belt is putting the payload above the astronauts. She thinks Belt knows about the sabotage. Mulder, however, is sure that he’s trying to get the astronauts home alive.
Mulder asks for records on multiple past missions, looking for any proof that Belt knew about sabotage. This takes a while. The astronauts complete the payload mission, then yell that they see something ghostlike outside the ship. Belt yells, “Noooooo!” over and over. Scully finds proof that Belt ordered faulty equipment for a previous mission. Mulder finds further evidence that he approved equipment for the Challenger.
Michelle brings the agents to Belt’s office, where he’s whimpering under his desk. He babbles about something tearing him apart. Michelle makes the executive decision to tell the astronauts to come back. Mulder gets Belt to focus on him to tell Mulder how to bring the shuttle home. Belt admits that the shuttle won’t survive reentry because of a damaged fuselage. He didn’t do the damage himself, but he couldn’t stop the responsible party. “They don’t want us to know,” he says.
Belt flashes back to his mission, when the Mars face attacked him. His own face morphs again, and Michelle recognizes the Mars face as the thing she saw outside her car. As medics try to revive a dying Belt, Michelle learns that the shuttle has run out of oxygen. Belt is revived and taken to the hospital while Michelle instructs the astronauts to come back to Earth.
Mulder asks Belt if there’s anything they can do to bring the shuttle home safely. Belt tells him that they need to change the trajectory. Michelle objects – they would have to perform an emergency landing in Albuquerque and put a blackout in effect. Mulder insists, and though Michelle is skeptical, she passes on the instructions to the astronauts. They don’t respond, so she’s not sure if they heard her.
The shuttle returns to radar in Albuquerque airspace, though there’s still no communication with Houston. After a minute, the astronauts respond, and everything’s fine. Michelle gives a press conference, lying that the shuttle landed “without incident.” In the hospital, Belt’s face morphs again, and he fights off the vapor…thing. He ends up jumping through a window.
Mulder reads about Belt’s death in the paper, telling Scully that he must have been possessed by something in space. Scully thinks he was just experiencing dementia. Mulder isn’t sure Belt was responsible for his own actions. He thinks Belt send Michelle the x-rays of the damaged equipment to try to save the astronauts. Belt’s actions were an attempt to stop whatever he unlocked in space. The agents attend Belt’s funeral, and we get a good, long look at the stars on the flag over his coffin.
Thoughts: Michelle is played by Susanna Thompson (Once and Again, NCIS, Arrow).
Belt’s full name is Marcus Aurelius Belt. I bet he had a fun childhood.
I’m glad Mulder knows so much about space and can translate everything, because I definitely don’t speak astro.
For more on space travel, minus the freaky Mars faces, I highly recommend Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars.