You NEED to watch “For All Mankind”. What’s real? What wasn’t?

For All Mankind poster

I was a kid during the glory days of the Apollo space program and as you’ve probably heard me say a million times, Dad took us to Florida to see the actual launch of Apollo XI. Like every kid I lived and breathed every aspect of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions, and I’ve devoured every book and movie I can find about it. “Apollo 13”? Loved it. “From the Earth to the Moon”? Terrific. “The Right Stuff” ? Fabulous.

Apollo 11 Launch

That’s a picture I personally took of the Apollo XI launch on July 16, 1969.

But, For All Mankind, WOW.

I need you to watch this too. Sign up for a free trial of Apple TV+ if you have to (i’m biased, but it’s a great service.)

This is a fictional TV series (on Apple TV, about to enter Season 2) from Ronald D. Moore, the creator of “Battlestar Galactica” that’s an alternate-history view of the world, starting in 1969 as the first Apollo missions are set to land on the moon, except … the Russians get there first. All told from the point of view of the NASA astronauts and engineers – and their families! – who are suddenly behind, racing to catch up.

I just love this show. It’s alternate history that feels real.
The thing is, I seem to be surrounded by increasing numbers of people younger than me, who weren’t around when this was all happening, and who might be unaware of exactly what went down. I don’t want them to be puzzled by For All Mankind. I want them to revel in it too!

This article’s for you.

Of course the Russians never actually landed on the moon, but as a kid I remember people being worried that they’d do something to upstage the Apollo XI landing. And – that’s what happens in episode 1. The first man lands on the moon, and it’s NOT Neil Armstrong, it’s Alexei Leonov.

This, of course, gets NASA and the American government all riled up, and the space race is ON. The show starts to diverge from reality as the Americans scramble to get Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the moon, but now shortly thereafter, the Russians have landed their second ship, and – it’s a woman. NASA now scrambles at President Nixon’s direction to recruit and train female astronauts.

I don’t want to give too much away, but the women astronauts and engineers are the true heroes of this alternate version of the space race.

What truly fascinates me about this show is the mixture of fictional and real people and events.
For instance, the Russians have never actually landed anybody on the Moon, but Alexei Leonov was a real cosmonaut, the first person to walk in space outside the capsule, and he really had been scheduled to be the first Russian on the moon.

We see a variety of actual people – NASA astronauts, administrators, politicians and so on, in slightly modified roles as the show’s timeline begins to diverge from reality. Here for instance are some notes on a few REAL people or events, what they did in real life, and what happens to them on the show.

(It’s also fascinating watching the technology slowly get better – very primitive computers and displays at Mission Control in early episodes, much better computers towards the end. That’s a reminder of how much of what NASA did drove advances in civilian technology too. Imagine if we’d kept going to the moon in real life, not just in the show.)

Also somebody gives somebody a slide rule. I liked that.

the actual Apollo missions

Apollo missions used a three-astronaut crew; two would descend to the lunar surface in the Lunar Module, while the third orbited the moon in the Command Module for a few days waiting for the crewmates to return in the (top half of the) Lunar Module. They’d rendesvous, everybody would transfer back into the Command Module, and they’d leave lunar orbit and head back to Earth.

A few missions were just rehearsals for different aspects of the mission.

Mission Purpose
Apollo 1 A test, on the ground, that tragically ended in a fire, killing astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee. This was a major setback to the Apollo program, and NASA had to regroup.

Apollo 2,3|There were a variety of test launches but these names weren’t used.

Apollo 4 | An uncrewed launch, the first est of the Saturn V launch vehicle. 3 earth orbits.

Apollo 5 | An uncrewed launch, the first flight to include a Lunar Module. 7 earth orbits

Apollo 6 | An uncrewed launch. 3 earth orbits.

Apollo 7 | The first Apollo mission to fly with a crew of 3 – but only to earth orbit, testing various systems.

Apollo 8 | The first astronauts to leave Earth’s orbit. Apollo 8 executed the trans-lunar injection burn, and headed for the moon. It orbited the moon several times, took some very famous photographs, and returned to earth. The Lunar Module was not involved this time.

Apollo 9 | Earth orbit, but with the Lunar Module on board and the team practiced docking and undocking manouvres.

Apollo 10 | A full on dress rehearsal for a moon landing. Apollo 10 flew to the moon, where the Lunar Module separated from the Command Module and descended close to the surface – without landing.

Apollo 11 | Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin become the first astronauts to walk on the moon’s surface in July 1969, while Michael Collins orbited above in the command module.

Apollo 12 | Yet another moon landing, a successful mission in the mold of Apollo 11, but to a different part of the moon, which I should really look up.

Apollo 13 | Houston, we have a problem. I hope you’ve seen the movie Apollo 13 which is an excellent dramatization of this real-life accident. The crew went to the moon, orbited a few times but were obviously unable to land due to damage from an explosion in the Service Module, and due to heroic efforts of many at NASA, they returned safely to the earth.

Apollo 14 | A two day visit to the moon, including Alan Shepard, who was already famous as the first American in space on the first Mercury mission.

Apollo 15 | They took a CAR to the moon on this one! The first launch that included the Lunar Roving Vehicle.
440px Apollo 15 Lunar Rover and Irwin

Apollo 16 | Three days on the moon, with the LRV. Commanded by John Young, later the commander of the first Space Shuttle launch.

Apollo 17 | In December 1972, Gene Cernan became the last person to walk on the moon.

And that was it. Cernan died in 2017. Only twelve astronauts have ever walked on the moon. As of this writing, only Buzz Aldrin (Apollo 11), David Scott (Apollo 15), Charles Duke (Apollo 16) and Harrison Schmitt (Apollo 17) are still with us. Schmitt is the youngest, at 85.

We haven’t been back. We thought there’d be more – but almost 50 years later, nobody has returned to the moon.

Well, not in real life, anyway.

But on the show …

Apollo 10

This really was a manned mission to the moon – but without a landing. The plan – which we also see in the show – was to rehearse every step of the Apollo XI mission, EXCEPT the actual landing. In reality, astronauts Tom Stafford and Gene Cernan descended in the Lunar Module to within 8 miles of the moon’s surface, at which point they deliberately “aborted” the landing and returned to join the Command Module (and astronaut John Young) and return to Earth.

In the show, it’s more or less the same except Apollo X is crewed by (fictional) Ed Baldwin and Gordo Stevens, who become major characters throughout the rest of season 1, and the “aborted” landing becomes quite the plot point as people question if they SHOULD have gone ahead and landed, and beaten the Russians.

Apollo 11

Of course this mission actually went to the moon, but on the TV series, they will be the second people to get there. One of my favourite scenes in the show shows a technician crawling into the craft while it’s still on the launchpad, to remove the historic plaque that was attached the leg of the lunar module. You know, the famous REAL plaque that said “Here men from the Planet Earth first set foot upon the moon. We came in peace for all mankind.”

This is the real plaque, still there today on the Sea of Tranquility.
Apollo XI plaque

And on the show, well, they’re suddenly not going to be first any more. Better remove the plaque before launch. A great little detail.

Neil Armstrong, and Buzz Aldrin

Armstrong and Aldrin are, of course, the first two people to land on the moon. In the show, they’re beaten to the moon by Alexei Leonov, but they still land as scheduled in Apollo XI – with a major twist, that I won’t spoil here.

Michael Collins

In real life, command module pilot on Apollo XI, so he orbited the moon while Armstrong and Alrdin landed.
In the show, he returns as the commander of Apollo 23.

Wernher von Braun

von Braun was a major figure in real-NASA – an actual Nazi Germany rocket scientist who moved to the USA and was instrumental as director of the Marshall Space Flight Center and chief architect of the Saturn V rocket. In real life, he was also obviously quite controversial because of his Nazi background. Tom Lehrer wrote a famous song about Von Braun and his controversial past.)

In the show, von Braun is played by noted Canadian actor Colm Feore and … well, his Nazi background is still a problem, and that affects the arc of the show.

The Mercury 13

In the show, President Nixon angrily orders NASA to recruit some female astronauts to help win the PR war – and many of those astronauts have spectacular roles later in the show.

In reality, a group of women known as the Mercury 13 were recruited and went through the same training as the actual Mercury astronauts, although they weren’t formally part of the space program. One of them was an accomplished pilot named Jerrie Cobb. In the show, this group is brought back into the space program and somewhat controversially brought up to speed – and one of the successful astronauts and a major character from this group is named Mollie Cobb, no doubt as an homage of sorts. (and now that I’ve done a little more googling, the producers agree that they named Mollie as a tribute to Jerrie Cobb who died during the production of Season 1.)

Deke Slayton

Real Donald K. “Deke” Slayton was one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts, whose career was derailed by a heart issue that meant he couldn’t fly in the Mercury program, and he became a senior NASA administrator and manager of the astronaut office.
He was eventually cleared to fly, and flew on the Apollo-Soyuz mission (a joint earth orbit thing between American and Russian spacecraft) and here he is, whaddya know, with cosmonaut Alexei Leonov. (See above! In the show Leonov is the first man on the moon.)

Deke Slayton and Alexei Leonov

Deke Slayton is a major character in the show too, with a gritty performance by actor Chris Bauer. He’s in the same role as manager of the Astronaut office, selecting crews and … whaddya know, he manages to insert himself into the crew on one of the moon missions later in the show.

Real Deke Slayton passed away in 1993. I am very curious to know what his family thinks of his portrayal on the show.

Gene Kranz

Real NASA flight director. If you saw the movie Apollo 13, you saw a gritty portrayal of him by Ed Harris, chewing the scenery, and barking out the famous line Failure is not an option.. He never actually used that term but he was still a heroic real NASA character.

In the show, he’s played by actor Eric Ladin in the same gritty style.
You’ll want to watch carefully as he inspects the (mythical) Apollo 23 pre-launch. It doesn’t end well.

President Kennedy

Lots of fun historical tidbits are dropped in the show. You hear that Senator Ted Kennedy has postponed a vacation on Chappaquiddick to deal with some crisis or other – of course, in reality, he really did go to Chappaquiddick and an incident there derailed his political career.

On the show however – no incident! And he’s President by the end of the season, although we never really see him in the show.

Moon Missions

The actual Apollo program landed Apollos 11, 12, 14, 15, 16, and 17 on the moon between 1969 and 1972, with a famous accident on Apollo 13. Future missions, including Apollos 18 and 19, were scrapped, and today you can see some of that actual launch-ready hardware on display at the Kennedy Space Station.

Here’s some of the remains of the unused Apollo 18, 19 and other hardware on display today – we visited the Kennedy Space Center in 2015 and I highly recommend this tour. These aren’t museum mockups – this is actual launch-ready hardware that was built and never used. You can’t help but feel embarrassed that this magnificent vehicle is on display in a museum and never launched.

Apollo hardware

For All Mankind is moving at a much faster pace, due to competition with the Russians. At one point it abruptly fast-forwards by two years, to keep the plot moving along, and by the mid-1970s, NASA has an actual permanent base on the moon (and, minor spoiler, so do the Russians.) By the end of Season one, Apollos 24 and 25 are launched. And, NASA has modified the moon landing hardware so that the lunar module isn’t a single use land-once take-off-once thing as it was in reality, but a reusable vehicle to take people from lunar orbit to the surface. The tech still seems very believable and the Jamestown moon base is really fun to see, imagining that you’re still in 1975.

There is one hell of a cliffhanger involving an accident between fictional Apollos 24 and 25 at the end of episode 9, which turned out to be one of the most gripping things I’ve ever seen on TV.

And watch the final episode right past the credits. There’s a post-credit flash-forward to 1983, where we see NASA launching the Sea Dragon, a massive rocket launched from the middle of the ocean. Of course we’re now solidly in the fiction realm, but the Sea Dragon was an actual idea NASA was kicking around in the early 1960s (and one you briefly hear Von Braun mention on the show.)

What’s up in Season 2?

A first look is out.
We see modified space shuttles heading towards the moon.
We see a disturbing escalation of military action on the moon’s surface – astronauts with weapons.

And, I hear we’re going to see the Buran, the fabled Russian shuttle. In reality, the Russians were copying the overall design of the US shuttle but theirs never made it to space, and the remains of the only two Buran vehicles are actually rusting away today in a warehouse in Kazakhstan. Here’s an amazing picture of the abandoned Buran at the Baikonur Cosmodrome. Read more about that here.

Abandoned Buran shuttles

But in Season 2, they’re up in the air.

I can’t wait.

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