How Apple's Space Drama 'For All Mankind' Explores the Path Not Taken

[This story contains mild spoilers from the first three episodes of Apple TV+'s For All Mankind.]

For Ron Moore, the creator of one of the first four high-profile Apple TV+ series, getting For All Mankind made was really just about reuniting with old colleagues.

"It's been a very familiar process. You're still making a television series, a lot of the same steps," he told The Hollywood Reporter during a junket on the show's elaborate set back in February. The alternate history series, which imagines a world in which the Soviet Union wins the Space Race and the Cold War escalates to the moon, was in the middle of production after being picked up as one of the tech company's first forays into scripted television by Apple execs Zack Van Amburg and Jamie Erlicht.

This project's path to the small screen was easier than most thanks to the fact that Moore had worked with the duo at Sony for so long. As for content mandates, there was no push to be family friendly, nor any real insight into who would be watching the new streaming service.

"It was an optimistic show, it was a positive show, so it already wasn't going to be really dark and heavy and terrible. So it just kind of lends itself to telling the story for a very broad audience," Moore said. And audience-wise, "they've never said anything about this show should appeal to X, Y, or Z demographic or market share or any of that. The conversations we have is just about, we just want the show to be really good. Apple's all about excellence, and all about delivering a great product to the consumer. It should be really good. It should always be ready. It shouldn't be shown before it's not ready and all that. So that kind of corporate philosophy definitely filters down."

The first three episodes of the series, which is one of the service's best-reviewed launches on critic aggregator sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, debuted Nov. 1. In those episodes, the aforementioned Soviet Lunar Landing happens; the U.S. prepares for Neil Armstrong's first steps; and the Soviets do something else revolutionary — land a woman on the moon. This last event is what sparks President Richard Nixon to push NASA for a legitimate training program for female astronauts with the goal of sending at least one corn-fed American woman to the moon. And while it's a performative request at first — he wants to look good in the eyes of the rest of the world — the women in the program inspire not only a generation of young girls, but also the country. In this alternate history, the Equal Rights Amendment never loses traction and the gender politics of the 1970s become even more revolutionary.

Ahead of the on-set junket interviews, Moore addressed reporters seated in the series' near-exact replica of Houston's mission control. His presentation set up the structure of the series — season one ends in 1974, while future seasons will focus on subsequent years in the development of the space program, eventually leading up to the present day and beyond — essentially an idealized version of the future and space travel that the Apollo program represented in the 1960s.

"That was always sort of a broken dream of mine and I think it was a broken dream of a lot of people growing up in this country and around the world. We didn't get that future that we were promised," he said. "So this show explores the path not taken by the United States and by the world. What if we got the space program that we were all promised way back when? How would the world be different? How would it be different then? How would it be different today? How would it be different in the future?"

In Moore's vision, the Soviet lunar landing has a butterfly effect: Changes start small, but grow bigger. For example: Because Apollo 10 could've landed on the moon but didn't, congressional hearings are called to investigate why that happened. And because of the hearings, "Teddy Kennedy does not go to Chappaquiddick because he has to go to Washington," Moore explained. "In reality, in the true history of events, the incident at Chappaquiddick happened about a week, maybe two weeks before the Apollo 11 landing. So in our version of events, because of the turmoil over the Soviet landing, Teddy goes to Washington and Chappaquiddick never happens. As a result, he becomes a presidential candidate and runs against Richard Nixon in 1972."

Now that the Soviets have beaten the U.S. to space in every way — first satellite, first man, first woman, first lunar landing — "the administration goes all in on the space program. They pull out of Vietnam early. They get out two years earlier, in 1970. Those resources are dedicated toward the space program, and the competition with the Soviet Union moves to space. Now NASA's given range: 'Go for it, we want moon bases, and we want the whole thing. We're not going to be second space to the Soviet Union anymore.' And as a result, the history of the 20th century starts to shift in the show."

The characters in the series are a mix of historical and fictional people. Joel Kinnaman, the main astronaut and face of the series, plays made-up figure Edward Baldwin and Shantel Van Santen is his wife, Karen, while Chris Bauer's Deke Slayton was an actual member of the Mercury 7 and heads up NASA's astronaut training program in For All Mankind. Colm Feore plays Wernher von Braun, and actors also appear as Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and other famous real-life astronauts. On the fictional side, Michael Dorman is Ed's right-hand man, Gordo Stevens, and Sarah Jones is pilot-turned-housewife Tracy Stevens.

In the third episode, Tracy is recruited into NASA's new women's program, which will ultimately advance gender politics at a much faster rate than in real life. Jodi Balfour, who plays astronaut candidate Ellen Waverly, told THR that she didn't approach her character from a retro perspective.

"I don't know that I did make a huge effort to divorce my current gender politics. I think they've been around for a really long time," she said. "So many of the obstacles that these boundary-breaking women face in the show are almost exact replica of the obstacles that are still being faced by women in the workplace today."

Added Wrenn Schmidt, who plays lone female mission control scientist Margo Madison, "I can buy a home on my own without a man and I don't need a man to get a credit card. However, I think it is very relatable to still oftentimes be a woman in the workplace trying to figure out how you say something in the most effective, careful, strategic way in order to get your point across. That I find to be very much something that is a challenge Margo faces in our story, but also that I, Wrenn, face in my life."

Van Santen plays Ed's Earth-bound wife, but she told THR her struggles in the latter half of the season will delve much deeper than the doting housewife audiences meet in the first episodes.

"I started off with lots and lots of questions because I thought, 'I don't want this to be one-dimensional,'" she said. "There's a journey for everybody on the show. They craft a story around the characters, and they interweave them into the times and things that are changing and they do it so beautifully, and they challenge me. I think that's what's surprising and interesting: We're going to think Karen's this one-dimensional housewife who cooks dinner and has her opinions, and everything is black and white, and she doesn't want to change, and life forces you to somehow evolve and change. We experience something in the latter part of the show as a couple that is truly transformational."

While the series focuses heavily on space exploration and outer space, For All Mankind isn't sci-fi — at first. The first season doesn't divert much from real-life events or introduce wild new technologies, but the possibility is there.

"This is an alternate history show, but most of the time when you're doing an alternate history show it's a dystopian world. It's usually predicated on something terrible has happened. You know, Hitler wins the Second World War," Moore said in his presentation to reporters. "This is not that show. This show is very optimistic, I think. This is about the road not taken that could have been much, much better. This is about how great the world could have been if we had done this, and also how the world still can be."

Kinnaman told THR that the series "shines a light on a lot of problems, but it also gives an aspirational take on what could have been if we made a few decisions a little differently and if we looked upon things in a different way. So I think the different take gives us a perspective of today.... This is a show that is very much rooted in reality. The tone of it is realism, and then it goes on this alternate historical timeline where things that haven't happened happen, but the tone of it is very much realistic."

The advancements in science in the series inspire advancements in social justice and other issues, a respite from the current political news cycle.

"All you have to do is open up any media outlet and you'll see that this is a tricky time right now all around the world, internationally," said Jones. "It's not just secluded in the United States. We need answers, and I think we can do better. I think we can evolve and I think we can grow, and I don't think that's something we have to be afraid of."

One storyline introduced in the opening episodes: that of Mexican immigrants Octavio and Aleida Rosales (played by Arturo Del Puerto and Olivia Trujillo). Octavio gets a job as a custodian at NASA, and his young daughter becomes enamored with the space program. It's clearly a storyline that will play out throughout the seasons — Aleida has a bright future ahead of her — but it also provides a pointed parallel to current immigration politics.

"I think it comes from a message of positivity, of being able to achieve, being able to do, instead of closing barriers, of putting barriers up, putting up walls. It's a message of positivity," Del Puerto said. "Immigrants in our reality have a chance to have a life. Women in our reality are active astronauts or are active in decision-making. They're not just a sidekick. So I think it's a very important tone we're trying to set not just because we're telling a story of 'Oh, everybody needs to have the same opportunity.' It's a story of people that see this show might see that this was happening 50 years ago, but it's very pressing now. So maybe little girls like Olivia will see this and be like, 'Oh, I can be an astronaut, I can be the head of NASA one day,' or 'I can be the president of the United States if I wanted to.'"

He continued, "You can't separate society from politics, right? So it's not a political show, but it is showing certain problems that we have in society right now that hopefully will not be prevalent in the next 10 years. Hopefully we'll be able to grow as a society. This show is about positivity, about optimism, and about everybody growing in the same direction."

New episodes of For All Mankind are available to stream weekly on Apple TV+.