Doing Space is Hard
The muddled world building (and fascinating speculative science) of ‘For All Mankind’
August 12th saw the conclusion of the third season of For All Mankind, the alt-history hard science space race melodrama that’s among the weirder Apple TV+ projects just because of the specificity of its genre mash. The first season opens with the Soviet Union beating the United States to the moon in 1969, provoking an extended space race. The second season opens in the 80s with an ambitious moon base following these antics, then closes with a major calamity as said moon base nearly explodes. The third season in the 90s deals with the first missions to Mars where three sides, the United States, the Soviet Union, and a new entrant, the private corporation Helios, each manage to screw up in outrageously horrible ways.
More on that later. First, let’s get into why For All Mankind even exists in the first place- from an ideological perspective I mean. A recent in-vogue theory in left-liberal circles to explain the decline of the United States of America has been the collapse of the Soviet Union. The show postulates that, with the Soviet Union around, the United States had more motivation to engage in genuine self-improvement, since this was the best way to prove the superiority of the American political system.
How and why this works depends a lot on who you’re asking. Leftists will tell you that the Soviet welfare state and its social equality were the real threat. Ask a liberal though, and they’ll tell you this was mainly due to spite. Essentially, because liberals believe Soviet propaganda to be false, they find the idea that anyone could believe in Soviet propaganda to be absurd, even actual Soviet citizens. In For All Mankind, this manifests in the climax of the second season when a Soviet cosmonaut rather incredibly requests asylum when Americans bring him back to their moon base after nearly killing him in an unprovoked attack.
This goofiness was an ominous portent for the third season, where said cosmonaut becomes a regular crew member but never even attempts to explain why he defected. The change is a disappointment from earlier on, where the show almost never directly depicts the Soviet Union. Take the first season where Richard Nixon turns woke when the Soviet Union lands a woman on the moon, and orders NASA to bring gender equality to its astronaut training program. This, among other factors, results in the show viewing Nixon with a surprising amount of nostalgia, his photo displayed prominently in the third season’s Oval Office, now occupied by one of the female astronauts he championed.
The Soviet motivation for putting a woman on the moon isn’t really important in this context, since it doesn’t matter to any of our perspective characters. But the third season quickly takes a hard swerve to emphasizing that the Soviet Union is indeed bad, as we see a KGB agent nearly murder the head of the Soviet space program just to bully the head of NASA into giving them rocket designs. Much like Tehran before it, For All Mankind disappointingly turns credible antagonists into cartoonish buffoons, as a show that once thrived on ambiguous tunnel vision in its worldbuilding runs into pratfalls the further it goes beyond that.
I kept going back and forth on just how good the alt-history was in For All Mankind for this reason, only finally turning against the show with the big twist of its final episode of the North Korean cosmonaut who sneaks his way onto Mars ahead of the big players. For All Mankind does no real worldbuilding with this. About the only definitive statement we get on the subject is a Soviet character stating that North Korea has always wanted to be a major world player. But even this is impressively wrong and anachronistic. North Korea as we understand it today is almost entirely the product of the collapse of the Soviet Union, this event forcing them to fend for themselves on an international scale.
In general North Korea has only ever focused on local interests, and this left me wondering what happened to South Korea in the alt-history of For All Mankind. Without the imminent collapse of the Soviet Union, I simply don’t see how the June Democratic Struggle of 1987 succeeds. It probably gets crushed, just like the one in 1980 did.
For All Mankind doesn’t use its limited time on the North Korea plot to go into any of this, nor would I expect it to. But with the North Korean regime presented as killing two cosmonauts for a meaningless symbolic victory, I’m not expecting any more nuance for the recently announced fourth season than anything we’ve had with the Soviets. It’s not just foreign nations that the show presents as being irrational and crazy either. In a major subplot, the younger son of the two martyred astronauts from the second season finale joins up with what we eventually discover to be domestic terrorists who believe that NASA lied about what really happened on the moon, and who also resent that space exploration is destroying American jobs.
Despite the Trumpish undertones, there are actually good materialist and historical grounds for this storyline. Helium-3 from the moon has revolutionized energy production, putting a lot of people out of their jobs. While people blame NASA for this in the alt timeline, in our timeline the blame went to NAFTA. The core issue isn’t why the jobs disappeared, but that the United States started pursuing an economic policy that involved people losing jobs and then not bothering to do anything that would help them make a new living. This is an ongoing criticism of capitalist economic systems dating back to the Luddites. Technology that increases production, but lowers the standard of living for workers, is unsurprisingly seen with hostility by workers who care more about their standard of living than the abstract concept of science.
There’s no real serious discussion of what these terrorists want or why they attack NASA in the finale. In general, For All Mankind has excelled mainly when it focuses on the hard science of space exploration, of how a seriously funded NASA space program would function bureaucratically and mechanically. Unfortunately, as we get farther away from 1969, these time ripples get bigger, as do the holes in the speculative worldbuilding. Considering that the third season opens up with an attempted space hotel nearly collapsing from an encounter with random space junk, a person might expect a big theme of the season would be the dangers of bringing capitalism to outer space.
But no, the only time the show ever presents Helios negatively is when its eccentric CEO refuses to rescue the Soviet ship en route to Mars, forcing NASA to do it so Helios can win. Incidentally, the Soviet ship is only malfunctioning because they’re overclocking an old rocket design they stole from NASA. Then NASA destroys their own ship by forcing an early landing on Mars in bad conditions. Then Helios destroys a lot of its gear, and kills three astronauts, because someone put a character clearly not fit for duty in charge of an important safety monitoring task.
For All Mankind works great as hard sci-fi, and to a lesser extent even as melodrama. Ed Baldwin, the main focus character for all three seasons, is a sympathetic if increasingly comically old lead with genuinely heroic qualities who can’t get past his own entitlement and masculinity issues. The Soviet Union in For All Mankind, and the reaction to it, might be absurd, but the actual Soviet cosmonauts are well-grounded characters. For All Mankind is about as sympathetic to the old Soviet Union as any show could be at this point. Still, I doubt that future seasons of For All Mankind (the producers claim the original plan called for seven overall) will get past its own fundamental optimism that as long as people mean well, everything will be OK. The empty void of space doesn’t care if you mean well, but it punishes hubris.