'The First' Creator Explains Why the Hulu Drama Took So Long to Get to Space

[This story contains spoilers from the season finale of Hulu's The First.]

The First, Hulu's ambitious space drama, tracks a crew of astronauts (led by Sean Penn's Tom Hagerty) who set out to be the first humans on Mars. However, despite the premise of the series, the drama's central team doesn't actually board the spaceship and set off on their journey until nearly halfway through the final episode of the eight-hour first season.

"I always knew I wanted to structure it that way, and I was upfront from the get-go,” creator Beau Willimon tells The Hollywood Reporter. "Some people will want a show that leaps right into space and gets to Mars within a few hours. I felt that it was important we be deeply invested in these characters, that we understand how hard it is to get to the starting line; that by the time we do launch, we contextualized these people's lives. We know how much it means to them, we know how much they had to sacrifice.”

"If we rushed it, and got to space too soon, we would be neglecting a huge portion of the story, which is what it takes to get [to] that launch," he continues. "And along the way, we do see some space [in flashbacks]. We're not totally Earth-bound. But a big part of space is prepping for it. We felt it was important we dramatized that as well."

If the show returns for a second season, the Mars-bound mission will take focus ... to a degree, the former House of Cards showrunner says. "It's not unreasonable to expect, having seen this launch at the end of season one, that we will [continue to] see the astronauts on the way — perhaps even get to the surface of Mars," Willimon offered. "But, because we've invested so much time in Earth, as well, in a parallel fashion we can tell the stories of the people they left behind and who are working on the ground."

To make the near-future series as realistic as possible, Willimon relied on a gaggle of consultants, including Charles Elachi (the former director of Jet Propulsion Laboratory); astronauts Michael Lopez-Alegria, Christopher Ferguson and Chris Hadfield; Adam Steltzner (one of the leads on the Curiosity mission); and futurist expert Amy Webb.

The experts proved to be invaluable as the writers tackled both the astronauts' prep for their mission and the series-opening initial launch, which ended in a crash that was reminiscent of the Challenger and Columbia disasters.

"We spoke to a lot of people who were working at NASA during both of those tragedies." Willimon says. "It was important to us that if we were going to dramatize that kind of tragedy, we got it right. So we talked to people on the ground team, engineers. We also talked to astronauts who weren't on that mission, but knew people who were. And the culmination of that was something that can be tough to watch because of its accuracy, but I think really stays true to what a monumental experience that is for people who have devoted so much of their lives to this. Especially to the loved ones who have to suffer that loss."

The research paid off during a recent screening of The First at the Kennedy Space Center. "There was a woman at the screening who spoke up after who said she had been part of the team that worked on the Columbia, and watching the first episode was tough for her, but also cathartic," he recalls. "She felt that for the first time, someone had shown something that was true to the experience. I think for people that work in the space industry to see a story where we're not only telling a story about the job they do, but also what impact it has on their lives and what motivation they bring to it, it's really refreshing for them. That to me was a real badge of honor."

All eight episodes of The First are now streaming on Hulu.