What If the Soviets Had Walked on the Moon First?

Season 3 of Apple TV+’s alternate reality series For All Mankind takes the Space Race to Mars

Astronaut Repairing Spacecraft

The Apple TV+ alternate reality drama For All Mankind asks the question: Is competition good for space exploration? [Courtesy: Apple TV+]

What might have happened during the Cold War Space Race if the Soviets walked on the moon first? The ripple effects across technology and space exploration might have significantly impacted the world as we know it.  

That’s the premise behind Apple TV+’s alternate reality space drama For All Mankind.

For two seasons we’ve seen supersonic flying, spacewalking, moonwalking, mining on the moon, guns on the moon, and The Bob Newhart Show on the moon. And as the third season premieres Friday, it’s time to ask the question: Why isn’t everyone who’s interested in NASA, Roskosmos, the Russian space agency, and companies like SpaceX watching this show?

This series takes us to an imaginary world where Apollo funding never dried up, the Soviet Union never broke up, and national interest in space exploration never wavered.  

The new season carries the U.S-Soviet space rivalry forward to the ’90s. The musical backdrop for the trailer is Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun,” as the U.S. and Moscow compete for a new frontier: Mars.

Also different this season is the introduction of a third rival: commercial space. A multi-billionaire CEO of a private  company called Helios Aerospace is determined to land on the Red Planet. (Now does this scenario sound familiar?)

Many characters in For All Mankind are imaginary—but the show also features actors playing real people instrumental in the exploration of space, like John Glenn, Wernher von Braun, Gene Kranz, Deke Slayton, Sally Ride, Charlie Duke, Pete Conrad, Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrin, and Neil Armstrong.

In For All Mankind, when a Soviet woman walks on the moon in the 1970s, NASA begins recruiting women astronauts. [Courtesy: Apple TV+]

In the first season, GA pilots will appreciate a humorous “meet cute” when two future moonwalkers enjoy a pseudo flying lesson in a beautiful 1951 single engine Cessna 195. 

To borrow a word from Star Trek’s Mr. Spock: This show is “fascinating.”  

The brains behind For All Mankind include Matt Wolpert, Ben Nedivi, and Ronald D. Moore— a former Star Trek writer/producer and award-winning re-imaginer of the Battlestar Galactica series. 

The series imagines a world where Apollo funding never dried up, the Soviet Union never broke up, and national interest in space exploration never wavered. [Courtesy: Apple TV+]

What Ifs

Among its chief attributes, the series presents these thought-provoking, “what if” developments and possible consequences:

  • What if the Soviets walked on the moon first? In the show, this intensifies and lengthens the competition between NASA and Moscow in the race to dominate space exploration.
  • What if the Space Race continued through the 1970s? The series imagines both nations with permanent space stations on the lunar surface.
  • What if the Soviets landed a woman on the moon? For All Mankind envisions that this prompts the U.S. to bring women into NASA’s astronaut program in the 1970s. The best women pilots are recruited and trained. By the dates of the Apollo 15 mission in this alternate timeline, the first American woman walks on the moon. The series envisions a diverse astronaut corps, beginning in the 1970s. But race, gender, and sexual orientation continue to be issues as the space program develops.
  • What if new consumer technology resulted from the continued Space Race? In the alternative 1980s, video-phones and electric cars are part of daily life.
  • What if new space technology was developed? The series features a space shuttle that can fly to the moon. We see an enormous reusable rocket called Sea Dragon (which was an actual NASA proposal) that dramatically lifts off from under the ocean surface.

The history of human space exploration is relatively short, but already filled with truly amazing stories—some of which have achieved an almost mythical status. The show’s talented storytellers combine some of these actual events in space history with thrilling and entirely credible fictional scenarios—many that are genuinely unforgettable. 

With the focus now on Mars instead of the moon, For All Mankind will likely start to feel more like science fiction and less like alternate reality. 

Nonetheless, as real-world NASA makes plans to return to the moon and eventually Mars under the Artemis Program, it will be interesting to see where the imaginative minds behind For All Mankind take us next. 

Thom is a former senior editor for FLYING. Previously, his freelance reporting appeared in aviation industry magazines. Thom also spent three decades as a TV and digital journalist at CNN’s bureaus in Washington and Atlanta, eventually specializing in aviation. He has reported from air shows in Oshkosh, Farnborough and Paris. Follow Thom on Twitter @thompatterson.

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