Why did we never go further than the moon? Despite the fact that Americans have spent the last half-century clapping themselves on the back for completing a manned trip to the moon before their rivals in the Soviet Union could, no other Space Age dreams have come to pass since. There are no “lunar bases,” and certainly no realistic prospects of a manned trip to Mars anytime soon, even though NASA has had 50 years to work on it. Conspiracy theorists allege this is because there was never any moon landing at all, while cynical realists note that the whole point of the moon landing was simply to prove that the Cold War superpowers had developed rocket technology sufficient enough to nuke each other’s capitals.
For All Mankind, one of the new shows launching on Apple TV+ this fall, has a different theory: The Communists just weren’t good enough. If the Space Race had been more of a competition, the new show from producer Ronald D. Moore (Battlestar Galactica) speculates, maybe it could’ve gone much farther than a flag.
Anyone who’s seen any of the trailers or advertisements for Apple TV+ might already know the basic premise of For All Mankind: The Soviets make it to the moon first. The show’s opening scene finds Americans around the country glued to their TV sets watching the lunar landing. But instead of Neil Armstrong declaring “one small step for man,” etc., etc., it’s a Soviet cosmonaut saying in Russian, “I take this step for my people, my country, and the Marxist-Leninist way of life.” This gives For All Mankind some of the vicarious frisson of The Americans and Comrade Detective in terms of showing the Cold War from an angle American viewers aren’t used to, but that viewpoint fades as the show progresses. There are no actual Soviet characters, so they mostly represent a faceless rival pushing the actual main characters to prove that capitalist democracy is just as capable of reaching the stars as the Marxist-Leninist system.
There’s no shortage of introspection on the American side, though. Almost like Watchmen, For All Mankind uses its alternate history to explore the actual realities of 20th-century America. By the end of the first episode, Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (Chris Agos) have indeed made it to the moon themselves (albeit in a thrilling near-miss), but things don’t stop there. In order to one-up the Soviets, the Americans become determined to build the first lunar base. But while they’re working on that, the Soviets manage to land the first woman on the moon as well, meaning the Americans have to match. Female pilots like Tracy Stevens (Sarah Jones) and Molly Cobb (Sonya Walger) get fast-tracked at NASA and find themselves struggling against both their own inexperience and the entrenched sexism of American patriarchy. John Glenn (Matt Battaglia), the heroically handsome astronaut memorialized in movies like Hidden Figures, shows up to say that “women can’t do what we do; it’s just a fact of our social order.” The sexism from such a noble figure is horrifying in its banal believability.
Glenn’s not the only Space Age icon who gets a thorough re-examination here. As anyone familiar with the phrase “Operation: Paperclip” is aware, many of NASA’s scientific breakthroughs were supplied by former Nazis — none more so than Wernher von Braun (Colm Feore), who went from designing the Wehrmacht’s V-2 missiles to building the Saturn V rocket at the core of the Apollo program. When the Nixon administration is in desperate need of a scapegoat for their moon failure, they drag von Braun in front of a Congressional committee and grill him publicly about the concentration camp slave laborers who died building his rockets. It’s a tense sequence made all the more compelling for its basis in historical reality. For All Mankind is the rare Space Age narrative that does not think everything America did during the Cold War was totally awesome; instead of hagiography, it spends a lot of time examining the consequences of those famous achievements.
Even though this show, per its own official description, is set at a time when astronauts were seen as “rock stars,” NASA’s Ed Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman) himself is a bit of a charisma vacuum. He mostly just sits around looking angry and bored; even when he finally gets to the moon, he gets stuck for weeks cooped up in a small station with not much to do. Thankfully, as the show goes on it spends more time with the people around Ed — particularly his wife Karen (Shantel VanSanten), who struggles with the burden of leading an earth-bound life with her young son while living with the possibility that her husband could disappear down a lunar crater at any moment. She has some spicy takes about the female astronauts, and gradually becomes one of the most interesting presences on the show. Another is Deke Slayton (Chris Bauer), the grounded astronaut director who fights for the women’s right to go to space even in the face of bureaucratic meddling. Bauer, of course, played Frank Sobotka on season 2 of The Wire, so it’s quite a trip seeing the actor most famous for delivering the line “we used to build s— in this country; now we just put our hand in the next guy’s pocket” portraying a major player in the mid-century industrialism that Sobotka mourned.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, which might explain why we’ve received such a bevy of astronaut movies (First Man, Lucy in the Sky, Ad Astra…) in the last year. For All Mankind distinguishes itself by speculating how far a truly dedicated space race could’ve gone without shying away from the ugly realities of Cold War America. Here’s the moon like you’ve never seen it before. B+