For All Mankind’s twisted space race asks the big questions

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Apple starts shooting second season of For All Mankind next month
This is the best series on Apple TV+ right now.
Photo: Apple

Timely space-race drama For All Mankind just might propel Apple TV+ into becoming must-see TV. The show kicks off in the late 1960s, a couple of weeks before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin strap themselves into a giant metal tube full of fuel that’s aimed at the moon.

From there, the story takes a sharp turn away from history and examines what the world would look like if the USSR planted its flag on the moon first. Space is obviously a huge part of For All Mankind, but the way creator Ronald D. Moore uses it as a vehicle to tackle topics like family, patriotism, feminism and more is what makes the show worth watching.

Warning: Spoilers ahead

The first three episodes of For All Mankind became available today as Apple TV+ launched in more than 100 countries around the world. Apple plans to release the other seven episodes on a weekly basis, which is kind of frustrating, because I was ready to binge the entire thing after finishing the first episode.

The Red Moon landing

Watching For All Mankind feels like you’re seeing a dramatization of the Apollo space program like Apollo 13 or First Man. Then something crazy happens, and the show smacks you with the realization that anything goes in this alternative version of history. Nothing is going to go the way you expect it to.

At the beginning, For All Mankind doesn’t stray too far from real history (other than the Red Moon landing). A lot of the most famous faces from the ’60s have parts in the show, like Neil Armstrong, President Richard Nixon and even Henry Kissinger, though they’re never major characters. The show shines brightest when it focuses less on the space race itself and more on how it affected the lives of those pushing NASA forward and the people they’re connected to. It also does a great job of highlighting major figures of the space race that you might not have known about. Throughout the show, I’d find myself hitting up the Wikipedia pages of dudes like Deke Slayton, Gordon Cooper and Wernher von Braun.

For All Mankind somehow manages to educate you on real issues and people of the space race while also entertaining you with historical curveballs. The show leans a bit too much on those curveballs to generate tension in the first few episodes, by almost throwing them out of nowhere when the plot is plodding along too slowly. Not only do the Russians land on the moon first, but the next major turning point is when Neil Armstrong crash-lands into the lunar surface and survives. The ante gets upped again when Russia puts the first woman on the moon and kick-starts a feminist revolution. Not exactly where I saw the show going (although a teaser for the series showcased its inclusive story line).

A woman’s place is in space

Russia’s female cosmonaut becomes a global sensation, sparking Nixon to set a new goal to put an American woman on the moon. This is where the show starts taking a major detour from history — and it’s all for the best.

If you were even mildly intrigued by The Astronaut Wives Club, you’ll really dig For All Mankind. Instead of focusing solely on the drama between the wives or the issues they have with their husbands, For All Mankind uses its alt-history powers to put them on a path to be on the same level as the boys.

One of the best midlevel characters is a female math whiz who goes from working on the math behind the Apollo program to becoming the first woman in the control room. Then there’s Trudy Olson, a character based on the real wife of Apollo astronaut Gordon Cooper. Nixon personally requests Trudy be added to the training group of female astronauts for two reasons: She can fly a plane, and she’s hot as hell and would look great on a magazine cover.

While a huge feminist movement spreads across the United States, Judy’s rise within NASA makes some of the other space wives jealous. One of the great plot devices of For All Mankind is its ability to also ask questions like, “What would have happened if we faced issues like equal rights for women earlier?” Many women feel empowered by the female astronauts. However, others think they’re getting out of place and should go back to the kitchen and raising kids. Pulling on these type of threads sometimes becomes more interesting than whatever moon landings are going down.

America is great again

One thing I didn’t really expect from For All Mankind were the parts that made me just love America. Scenes of classic American nostalgia whip through episodes like a 1968 Corvette. A lot of times including a ’68 Corvette and ’60s rock. I just can’t get enough.

The show also makes you think about topics like patriotism. Wernher von Braun plays a critical role in getting the USA into space. Yet, before he became an American, he developed the first long-range guided ballistic missile for the Nazis using concentration camp laborers. When confronted about the Nazi missile situation by the female math whiz he helped rise up through NASA, Wernher admits to knowing about the slave labor. He didn’t say anything because he viewed it as a necessary side effect of making sure his work progressed for the good of all humanity.

America is cast as the hero in For All Mankind, but the show forces you to contemplate if that should be the case. Although many of us have a very altruistic view of NASA and the space program, not everything was done for the good of humanity. Politics played a major role in the space race. And in some ways, the good things that came out of it were just lucky side effects that benefited all of us.

For All Mankind makes a powerful statement that it doesn’t matter whether the USA or USSR planted their flag on the moon first. We (all mankind) got to the frigging moon, y’all. Somehow the magic of all that has been lost on us, but For All Mankind is here to light that spark again.