At first, it appears that the information received by the outer space transmission is worthless since the "blueprints" do not seem to fit together correctly. Billionaire S.R. Haden (John Hurt) secretly helps Dr. Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) crack the code sent by the aliens by figuring out that the blueprints need to be laid out in three dimensions rather than flat.
With the space machine completed in Florida, Ellie's boss, David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt), is selected to go instead of her. The day of launch, Drumlin is killed along with other NASA and Machine Consortium workers when a cult leader infiltrates the launch pad and blows it up.
Just when all seems lost, Hadden shows up to save the day again when explains to Ellie that he built a second launch platform off the coast of Japan. Ellie gets to go this time and is launched in the machine. She is catapulted across many universes and then "lands" on a virtual reality beach. While there, she talks to an alien representative. To make it easier to communicate to Ellie, the alien appears in the form of her father who died when Ellie was a little girl.
Ellie wants to ask tons of questions and get as much information as possible about the aliens, space travel, and other life in the universe. The alien basically says, sorry, but only small steps right now. This was just first contact.
Suddenly, Ellie is catapulted back to her space craft which crashes safely at the bottom of the launch pad back in Japan. Ellie asks how long she was gone, but ground control tells her that the launch was a failure and that she did not go anywhere.
A congressional committee is formed to see if this was nothing more than an elaborate hoax pulled by rich man Hadden before he passed away due to his cancer-ridden body. The video tape Ellie used to record the mission had only static on it, no images of her supposed trip across space. At the end of the hearing, White House faith leader, Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey), tells the press that he believes her, which helps Ellie feel vindicated and happy that someone believes her story.
Later, the White House staff member in charge of the project, Rachel Constantine (Angela Bassett), gently confronts Congressional Investigation leader Michael Kitz (James Woods).
"I assume you read the confidential findings report from the investigating committee."
"I flipped through it."
"I was especially interested in the section on Arroway's video unit. The one that recorded the static?"
"The fact that it recorded static isn't what interests me."
"What interests me is that it recorded approximately 18 hours of it."
"That is interesting, isn't it?"