This is a difficult story to describe, and to assess. The difficulty of description may be central to the point being made. Three pilots test an experimental spacecraft, but disappear from radar for a full 24 hours during the flight, and crash on their return. All three survive with minor injuries, and the damaged plane is shrouded in a hanger. “But the shrouds that cover mysteries are not always made of a tarplin…”
The aircraft is drawn from real life. The Boeing x-20 Dyno-soar was an experimental jet spacecraft, a predecessor of the Space Shuttle. So the episode draws on esoteric Air Force experimental flights that competed with NASA’s space program. The experimental and uncertain nature of test flights with craft of this sort is a matter of fact, and it is an important element in the story. (In fact, the x-20 never flew, though prototypes of it were flown, by Neil Armstrong and a few others.)
The actual x-20 was designed to only hold one person, but importantly here three pilot this craft, and three return. But on their return, it turns out that only two returned, and then only one, and then no one returned. And this fact about their actual non-existence is experienced through the eyes of the pilots themselves.
In this and other episodes, Serling explores the idea that space travel can radically alter the metaphysical framework, and alter it to such a degree that it’s not clear we can consistently describe the situation. In ordinary circumstances, persons who undertake actions, like flying an aircraft, undergo the consequences of such actions. Something happens to them, and even when we don’t know what happens to them, we know at least that we don’t know. But in this episode, these metaphysical constraints are violated. Three leave, and not only do none return, but the fact of the flight itself is erased from the collective memory of mankind. At the same time, in some sense the three did return, only to realize that they “don’t belong.”
We’ve had a half a century of space travel since this episode aired, and we have found that our ordinary metaphysics works just fine for it. Space travel, at our speeds and distances at least, doesn’t fundamentally change the nature of things. But maybe it will, and we just haven’t gone fast enough, or far enough.
Telephone booths in the Twilight Zone:
In this episode, a in “Where am I?” the telephone booth is a main character. In both it is the instrument of desperate calls for metaphysical help. [See other episodes: “A Thing About Machines,” “Time Enough at Last”…]