It begins with a golf game.
Two old academic frenemies are out on the links for their annual game. It's a lovely day in May. Dr. Martin Goodman is feeling especially, well, good about the day because at long last he thinks he can finally put the long game of one-upmanship he's had with Dr. Vernon van Dyne to bed: Goodman has just been named the new President of Midtown University. Surely being the leader of MU beats out whatever van Dyne's been working on over at Empire State?
Goodman barely gets a chance to boast about his success when van Dyne launches into an enthusiastic account of the discoveries a member of his faculty, a Dr. Hank Pym, has made. Goodman, who has always been aware that he's not a good a scientist as van Dyne (but a much better bureaucrat and politician), barely listens to his golf partner's description of particles and claims that Pym's discovery will alter the course of mankind. He just stews, knowing that such a leap forward will put Empire on the map and blow the achievements of Midtown University's science department, the department he built by the way, out of the water.
So after losing the golf game and choking down a few highballs in the clubhouse that taste of poison and failure, Goodman rushes back to campus, bursts into the labs, and corners the first promising young idea man he can find.
Richards is an interesting choice for Goodman, but the older man rarely thinks things through and just tends to go with his gut. Sure, Richards had that 'incident' with a dorm mate last year that lead to that other fellow dropping out and heading back to Eastern Europe, but he's a bright kid - eager, intelligent, and best of all for Goodman's purposes, naive. In his riled up state, Goodman doesn't really explain what Pym is working on, instead he just focuses on what he wants out of Richards - something big, something life changing
In return, Richards can have all the funding he wants. Doctorate? No problem. Whatever you build will be your dissertation. If it works, you have your PhD. If it works well, works big? You have a job with tenure. Whatever you need, whatever you want, just make... something.
That's the sort of blank check that a young scientist like Reed Richards can't ignore. Given free run of the science facilities, he dives into his work. He's not sure exactly what he'll work on, but who cares? There's an entire universe of possibilities out there. Hrm. Universe. Now there's an idea. Let's go see the universe.
Early on, Reed decides to skip the Moon. It's just a dead rock, right? People have been watching it for centuries and it hasn't done anything of interest. No, Reed wants to make a ship that can go anywhere, a sort of phasic ship that can skim the cosmic radiation of the universe and go anywhere almost instantly. He gives his list of requirements to Goodman who wastes no time in pulling resources from other parts of the university to support Richards. Sorry, Dr. Octavius, but we need your nuclear power core. No, Doctor, technically it's university property and if you don't like it, you can leave. Okay, bye, don't let the door hit you on the way out.
Richards works on into the summer. He builds a Cosmic Beacon, a way for his ship to find its way home from the outer fringes, and even has a bit of a mental breakdown. When Goodman learns that all his eggs are currently in a basket that might be warping under the pressure, he brings in the daughter of an old friend of his, Dr. Franklin Storm. Frank fell on some rough times and Sue could use the work to help support herself and her brother.
Turns out, bringing in Sue Storm as Richard's assistant was a masterstroke of management. Reed's behavior calms down - he even stops claiming to have been visited by extra-terrestrials when he first turned on the Cosmic Beacon - and he's able to refocus on his work. Sue proved adept at managing Reed's attentions, knowing when to kick him out of the lab and make him spend time his his friends and when to let him work through the night. The two become close and fall in love.
Sue is the one that notices signs of Reed starting to crack again, but this time it's not because of his work. His best (only) friend, Ben Grimm, joined the Air Force some time ago and it looks like he's about to be deployed in an 'advisory capacity' in the recently turbulent theatre Vietnam. She's the one who goes to Goodman and suggests that the young pilot is someone that Project Fantastic needs, not only to fly the ship, but to keep Richards on an even keel.
Ben Grimm, who was Richard's roommate in undergrad, is a bit put out that he's missed an opportunity to help his country, but in the end he comes around. He actually proves to be really helpful - having spent enough time in a cockpit, he knows what a pilot needs. As Sue gets more and more involved in the project, her brother Johnny steps in as well. Just as Reed needs Sue to keep him grounded, Sue needs Johnny. Besides, Goodman pulled the strings that are paying for Johnny's college education, so helping out at the Midtown University labs is really just some sort of workstudy job, right?
Of course, this sort of thing can only go on so long before the University's Board of Trustees start sniffing around. Where is all this money going? Why are tenured members of faculty complaining that their resources are being usurped by a 24 year old? In October of 1961, the Board steps in and puts a halt to Richard's work. At first, Goodman fights them on it - just look at what the kid has done in a few months! A Cosmic Beacon! Sure, it doesn't seem to do anything practical for the moment, but in time it will put humanity's stamp on the universe! Just a little more time!
But then Vernon van Dyne dies under suspicious circumstances and the fight goes out of Goodman. What's the point if the one person he wanted to show up is gone? Maybe the Board is right. Throttle down the crazy pace. Yes, yes, Richards, you can still work on it. Here, you can even have your doctorate like I promised. The university simply can't commit unlimited resources to Project Fantastic any more. Your ship will still fly, just not for another decade or so. I don't care if you are so close. We need to wind things down by the end of November.
Reed Richards, having grown used to his frantic research pace, is not ready to slow down. How many years will be lost while the University seeks to partner with other institutions? How will the project change if the government gets involved? With the project wound down, Ben will have to go back to Vietnam...
No. Ef that. We'll go into space. We'll see the universe. And we'll do it soon.
So it's over the long Thanksgiving weekend that Reed, Sue, Johnny, and Ben slip into the lab and ready the ship. The Beacon is activated and the ship launches, phasing up and out through solid matter, up into the sky, out into the great unknown. The four succeed. They see the universe! Everything! Stars and galaxies and... life? Is that really signs of life they see? It's hard to tell, phasic travel is so confusing. It's like you're everywhere at once with only the Beacon to keep you grounded, to give you a sense of up and down, of here and there.
And then someone shuts it off. It's not really Stanley Lieber's fault. He's just a guy working a night custodian job to earn some money until his writing career takes off. He just walked into the lab, saw it empty with all the lights on and machinery humming, and shut it down, whistling, before moving down the hall.
Without the Cosmic Beacon, the four travelers are in crisis. Currently, they're Everywhere. How can they get back to There without the Beacon? It's a close run thing. It takes all of them working together to guide the ship through extra dimensional space back home. Without the Beacon, they take the Long Way Home, passing through the very edge of creation itself.
That the craft crash lands in Upstate New York is a testament to Ben Grimm's piloting skills. Imagine threading a needle with a pin from ten feet away while drunk and dizzy. To even hit the needle with the thrown pin would be amazing, and that's just the equivalent of the four finding their way back to our solar system.
We all know what happens when the four emerge from the craft. They've changed. Rocky features, flaming skin, invisible body, elastic form. But still, they're alive, the four of them and they've returned from a fantastic voyage.
And the world will never be the same.