The film was panned by critics and is famous for being a "marketing nightmare," as it was released less than five months after the Challenger accident of January 28, 1986 (although filming was completed before the disaster occurred). The film performed poorly at the box office, grossing less than $10 million in the US. A rewrite of the book, released to coincide with the movie, mentioned how the teens struggled with the pressure of their decision in light of the Challenger disaster.
Four teenagers: Kathryn, Kevin, Rudy, Tish and 12-year-old Max, go to space camp at Kennedy Space Center near Cape Canaveral, Florida for three weeks during the summer to learn about the NASA space program and mimic astronaut training. They meet their instructor Andie Bergstrom, a NASA-trained astronaut who is frustrated that she has not yet been assigned to a shuttle mission. Her bitterness is compounded by the fact that her husband, camp director Zach Bergstrom, is an astronaut who has walked on the moon.
Max befriends a robot named Jinx, which was deemed unsuitable for space work because it overheated and was overly-literal. Max and the robot declare themselves to be "friends forever". Meanwhile, Kevin pursues Kathryn romantically, Rudy shares his wish to open the first fast food franchise on the moon and Tish reveals that despite appearing to be a Valley girl, she is a genius with a photographic memory.
Kathryn and Kevin sneak away for some romance near the launch pad, but Jinx unintentionally gives them away when Andie and Zach discover they are missing. During a confrontation, Andie explains that she believes Kathryn has what it takes to accomplish her ambition, and explains the necessity of the harsh treatment Andie is giving her. While Kathryn vows to improve her performance, Zach's conversation with Kevin is less successful.
Kevin takes out his anger on Max. Upset, Max states "...I wish I was in space...". Jinx overhears and takes what he said literally. The group are allowed to sit in the Space Shuttle Atlantis during a routine engine test. Jinx secretly enters NASA's computer room and triggers a "thermal curtain failure", causing one of the boosters to ignite during the test. In order to avoid a crash, Launch Control is forced to ignite the second booster and launch the shuttle.
The shuttle is not flight ready, has no long range radio and there is not enough oxygen on board to last to the re-entry window at Edwards Air Force Base. Andie takes the shuttle to the partially constructed Space Station Daedalus to retrieve oxygen stored there. Realizing that while they have no voice communications with NASA they do have telemetry, Tish begins using a switch to send a Morse code signal to NASA, but it is not noticed by ground control.
Andie is slightly too big to reach the oxygen cylinders, so Max suits up for an EVA. During a critical moment, Max begins to panic until Kevin, knowing that Max is a fan of Star Wars, begins calling him "Luke", and tells him to "use the Force", which calms him enough that he can complete the mission, allowing Max and Andie to retrieve the containers.
In the shuttle, Rudy attempts to decipher the technical schematics to work out how to feed the oxygen into the shuttle's tanks. His lack of confidence combined with the time pressure frustrates Kathryn, who tries reading the diagram herself and gives Andie instructions that conflict with Rudy's. Andie follows Rudy's correct instructions. Kathryn's self-confidence is shaken as she realizes her interference nearly caused disaster.
The second oxygen container malfunctions, injuring Andie. Unaware of this, Ground Control begins the autopilot sequence to land the shuttle – closing the bay doors and stranding Andie outside. Andie regains consciousness and urges them to leave her and take the re-entry window, as the shuttle does not have enough oxygen to make the next window. Kathryn is unable to make a decision, but Kevin finally shows himself to be the shuttle Commander and overrides the autopilot enabling Max to rescue Andie. Having missed the Edwards re-entry window, the crew comes up with a plan to land at White Sands, New Mexico after Kathryn briefly mentions the 1982 Space Shuttle mission that landed there. Armed with this news, Tish uses Morse Code to signal NASA to let them land there.
At Ground Control, Jinx brings the signal to Zach's attention and they prepare for the White Sands landing. With Andie injured, Kathryn fulfils her role as pilot, but begins fretting and doubting her abilities until Kevin cajoles and teases her into landing the shuttle.Kate Capshaw as Andie Bergstrom, a camp instructor and astronaut.
Tom Skerritt as Zach Bergstrom, the camp director and Andie's husband.
Lea Thompson as Kathryn Fairly, who idolizes Andie and wants to be the first female shuttle commander. However, she is assigned the Pilot role.
Tate Donovan as Kevin Donaldson. Kevin is initially arrogant and selfish until Andie assigns him the role of Commander to teach him responsibility, much to Kathryn's dismay.
Larry B. Scott as Rudy Tyler. Rudy loves science, but admits he is sometimes not very good at it.
Kelly Preston as Tish Ambrosé. Tish appears to be a typical "Valley girl" teenager, but is actually highly intelligent and has an eidetic memory.
Joaquin Phoenix (credited as Leaf Phoenix) as Max Graham, an eager 12-year-old boy who has been to Junior Camp twice, whom Andie finally allows to stay at the main camp. He frequently makes references to Star Wars.
Frank Welker as the voice of Jinx, a sentient robot who befriends Max. Jinx facilitates the group's launch into space and then helps rescue them by discovering Tish's telemetry in Morse code. Jinx takes everything literally.
Lea Thompson mentioned in an interview that after their first day of shooting, they were 10 days behind schedule and what was supposed to be a 3-month shoot became six. She also mentioned that "We had T-shirts printed up that said, 'SpaceCamp: It's Not Just A Movie, It's A Career.' Oh, actually, instead of SpaceCamp, it said SpaceCramp. "
SpaceCamp received mixed to negative reviews with only 40% of critics giving it positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 11 reviews. Critic Roger Ebert gave it a one and half star rating and saying that "Our thoughts about the Space Shuttle will never be the same again, and our memories are so painful that SpaceCamp is doomed even before it begins." Variety says that "SpaceCamp never successfully integrates summer camp hijinks with outer space idealism to come up with a dramatically compelling story", while James Sanford of the Kalamazoo Gazette responds "Not exactly out of this world". Website At-A-Glance gave the film an even worse review, "It's tough to accept this movie's premise. A bunch of kids are given a tour of the Space Shuttle as NASA is testing its engines. An accident happens, and they, along with their guide, are launched into space. Once up there, can they be talked back down? Add an annoying, seemingly sentient robot into the mix. Add the standard 'two dimensional character development' arc, where each member of the cast overcomes his or her single character trait/flaw by the end of the story. Add gobs of sap, gushiness, and boredom. Mix well, and you've got a first-class mess."
In a 2012 interview with The A.V. Club, Lea Thompson mentioned that "I've had a lot of people come up to me and say that they became physicists or inventors, how much they loved that movie and how much it inspired them."