What if the Soviets had reached the moon first?
Back before the heady, early days of the space program and NASA, Americans and their glacially slow government were shocked into entering the space race by the Soviet launch of their space satellite Sputnik in 1958. Three years later, in 1961, President John Kennedy vowed to send Americans to the moon by the end of the decade. NASA accomplished that goal in an incredible nine years, landing Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon’s surface on July 20, 1969.
Believe it or not, the “space race” between the U.S. and the USSR pretty much ended there, and in the Seventies and the early Eighties era of glasnost (openness) both countries turned to other matters. The push for manned exploration of space lost momentum, especially after the Challenger shuttle tragedy.
But imagine for a moment that things had gone differently. You’re a young’un or a teenager (like I was) in the summer of 1969, glued to the television watching the first man stepping onto the surface of the moon. But it’s June, not July, and his name is Alexei Leonov, not Neil Armstrong. He sticks the red Hammer and Sickle flag of the USSR in the gray dust of our beloved satellite and claims it not for all mankind, but for the greater good of Marxism. That’s the opening scene of Apple TV Plus’s For All Mankind, a high-concept alternate history of space exploration created and written by Ronald D. Moore of Battlestar Galactica and Outlander fame, along with Matt Wolpert and Ben Nedivi. The three also serve as executive producers, with production handled by Sony Pictures Television and Tall Ship Production. Since the show requires a fair amount of production in the way of effects and set design, it needs all that backup.
The opening scene, with everyday Americans watching glumly as the Russians win the moon, was a real hook for me, because I remember that broadcast from the moon vividly. And I couldn’t figure out as I watched For All Mankind, why everyone was so unhappy until the last killer moment. Moore gives you a hint, of course, by sticking up a title card with the date (I think it was June 26) in front of the scene, which I knew was “wrong,” but the shock of the twist hit hard.
Once the Russkies land first, President Nixon and NASA and its astronauts must decide whether to go ahead with their planned launch in July. But Tricky Dick wasn’t about to let the Russians get the better of him. So the race is still on, not only to land on the moon, but to establish a permanent presence there. To mine its resources (first water ice, then lithium). And, eventually to use the moon as a launching pad to Mars. At each stage of the race, conflict escalates. Indeed, it becomes increasingly inevitable. Those agreements that were made to demilitarize space and declare it an international zone in our past are never made in this version of history. (Although at one point, the USSR and the U.S. are forced to divide the moon into distinct territories to avoid outright war.)
What is ironic about this is that Nixon’s once mere grudging support for the space program (because it was Kennedy’s baby) becomes enthusiastic as space becomes yet another theater of the Cold War. Resources flow to NASA (that in the real course of history were denied), new astronauts are recruited (including a whole new class of women), the Apollo program eventually launches up to 75 flights (the real-life Apollo program ended at 17, running from 1961 to 1972), new rockets and shuttle designs abound. The military sticks its nose in, too, sending Marines to the moon (where, no surprise, incidents arise) and arming shuttles with missiles. But, what the heck, the Republicans love it! (While Democrats aren’t so sure.) By the 80’s, new President Ronald Reagan is a huge fan, and the solar system is the limit.
But this is just the plot framework for the character development that is the heart of the show. (Season One covers the Seventies, Season Two starts in 1983 and Season Three works around the 1995 landing on Mars.) We meet the major characters we will be following as the show progresses in Episode One: Astronauts Ed Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman) and Gordo Stevens (Michael Dorman), their wives, Karen Baldwin (Shantel VanSanten) and Tracy Stevens (Sarah Jones), Chief of the Astronaut Office Deke Slayton (a real character, one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts, played here by Chris Bauer), Mission Control officers Margo Madison (Wrenn Schmidt), Larry Wilson (Nate Corddry) and Bill Strausser (Noah Harpster). In a seemingly unrelated segment, we also meet a young Mexican girl, Aleida Rosales (Coral Pena), crossing the border illegally with her family. (She later goes on to become a senior NASA engineer.) Finally, we meet the annoying Nixon Cabinet officer overseeing the space program, Thomas Paine (Dan Donohue).
Ed Baldwin is a pain who will forever regret he didn’t land Apollo 10 (which he commanded) on the moon to beat the Russians. This would have violated orders and probably gotten him and his partner killed, but he’s a former test pilot so those things don’t really figure. Gordo Stevens drinks too much and cheats on his wife, a pattern he eventually passes on to his son, Danny (played in Seasons Two and Three by Casey W. Johnson). Gordo’s first tour of duty on the moon base Jamestown is a disaster—he freaks out and causes the injury of another astronaut—but he later makes a solid comeback and eventually dies a hero. Baldwin, on the other hand, must suffer the indignities of growing older and facing the possibility of his own irrelevance in a young man’s game.
Personal tragedy also strikes the Baldwin family, a fact that plays into Karen’s search for meaning throughout the show. In Season Two, an Elon Musk-type entrepreneur, Dev Ayesa (Edi Gathegi) recruits her to snag talent for his company, something she’s quite good at. And suddenly the race for Mars is a three-way battle between private enterprise, NASA and the Russians.
In Season One we meet the first class of female astronauts in an episode titled “Nixon’s Women.” Despite pushback from NASA and the male astronaut corps, Nixon is adamant after the Russians show the smiling face of the first female cosmonaut beaming from the moon. According to this alternate history, NASA calls back several pilots from an original Mercury 13 group of women recruited and trained along with the Mercury 7 astronauts but dismissed and never allowed to go into space. (The real story is that 13 women were indeed put through the same training as the Mercury 7 astronauts by a private businessman, William Randolph Lovelace II, in the early Sixties. Despite lobbying Congress to be part of NASA’s program, they were rejected. One of the 13, Wally Funk, eventually went to space on a Blue Origin flight in 2021 at the age of 82, making her the oldest woman in space.)
Daredevil pilot Molly Cobb (Sonya Walger) was one of those originally trained, and she stays at the head of her astronaut class, with Ellen Waverly (Jodi Balfour) right behind her. Token Black “AsCan” (or astronaut candidate) Danielle Poole (Krys Marshall) gives them a run for their money. But the most surprising name on the AsCan list is Tracy Stevens, Gordo’s wife. She gave up her pilot’s wings when she got married and had two children, but now she sees her chance. She struggles, but she refuses to give up. And, though for political reasons she’s sometimes given some slack, she eventually earns her astronaut pin legitimately.
But the most interesting character of all for me is flight engineer Margo Madison, a quirky, socially awkward nerd who is fiercely dedicated to NASA and the space program. She has no life. She sleeps in her office. Her only real friend is her Russian counterpart, Sergei Nikulov (Piotr Adamcyzk), who may like and respect her, but who is being forced by his Communist superiors to squeeze her for technical information to enhance his own space program. Their relationship comes to a head in Season Three, with dire consequences.
Some of what happens in For All Mankind is admittedly over the top. I can more easily forgive the tendency to overdo it on the action front, because, truly, a lot can go wrong in space. As astronaut-turned-Chief of the Astronaut Office Molly Cobb says, “Space is an unrelenting bitch!” And Ron Moore is never one to shy away from piling on the problems to keep his viewers watching.
I have less patience, though, when the characters’ personal problems descend into soap opera hysterics. Karen Baldwin, in particular, makes some big errors in judgment in Season Two. That whole arc lowers the standard for the show by a substantial ick factor. The writers go off on other tangents that aren’t worth exploring, too. Stick to the point—we’re talking about space here, after all, and the people that explore it—and the show flows much better.
The first three seasons of For All Mankind are available to stream on Apple TV Plus now. The show has been renewed for a fourth season according to the announcement made at ComicCon June 10.