This article comes in peace to spoil For All Mankind.
For All Mankind is premised on what seems like the ultimate in Boomer wish fulfillment, an alternate history in which the space race never ended, and now, in the third season of the Apple TV+ series, U.S. and Soviet ships are running neck and neck to be the first to land on Mars. But even as someone who grew up watching shuttle launches and attended Space Camp (twice), I’ve been savoring the fictional NASA’s failures as much as cheering its successes—which is another way of saying I really like it when people on For All Mankind die.
More specifically, I like how they die. In this week’s episode, “Happy Valley,” the American Mars shuttle is called upon to conduct a daring rescue of the Soviet cosmonauts, who have pushed their ship’s nuclear engines into meltdown in a vain attempt to gain the lead. At first, it seems like the rescue will be carried out by a third Mars-bound ship, this one captained by an ex-NASA astronaut named Ed Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman) and sent by a private corporation called Helios. But Helios’ CEO remotely locks the crew out of the ship’s controls, forcing the U.S. to step up and save the Russians even though doing so will mean that they’ll never be able to complete their mission. The shuttle’s commander, Danielle Poole (Krys Marshall), doesn’t hesitate to do her duty, although she does get in a dig at her former colleague, a competitor who’s about to win the race to Mars in a way he never wanted to. “No need to apologize, Ed,” she tells him. “I work for the United States of America. You work for an asshole.”
It’s a moment of noble sacrifice on both an individual and a national level, one that’s endorsed back at Mission Control by no less than the president of the United States, herself a former astronaut. “It’s what NASA does best,” she says, “saves lives, leads by example. That’s more important than winning a race.” But the rescue doesn’t go as planned. As the last cosmonaut is sliding across a makeshift zip line strung between ships, a fuel tank on the far side of the Russian ship ruptures, spewing propellant into space and sending the ship into a slow spin toward the American shuttle. As the spacecraft collide, one American astronaut is caught between them, squished flat as the Russian ship rolls right over her, fixed helplessly in place by her EVA tether. A cosmonaut is flung into space as the cable he’s traversing snaps, his visor shattered into bits as he smacks silently into the side of his own ship. And another American is taken out as the cable whips back toward him, watching blankly until it collides with his helmet and the screen goes black.
The daring space rescue is a heroic act, but the deaths themselves are anything but. More than martyrs to a cause, the astronauts feel like the victims of simple dumb luck. They die with their faces frozen in apprehension, aware of what’s coming but too overloaded with sensation to dive for safety or even mouth a quick prayer. Because For All Mankind deals realistically with how sound works in a vacuum, there’s no dramatic crunch as the woman is crushed between ships, just a muffled scream over her microphone before it, like she, is rendered lifeless.
The series has its share of heroic deaths, notably at the end of the second season, when astronauts Gordon (Michael Dorman) and Tracy Stevens (Sarah Jones) give their lives to stop a nuclear reactor from melting down on the moon. The couple, unhappily married, divorced, and reconciled over the course of the first two seasons, don improvised spacesuits made of duct tape and dash across the lunar surface despite knowing there’s virtually no chance of them making it back to safety. They die in each other’s arms, sacrificing themselves to save not only their fellow space explorers but, with the U.S. and the Soviet Union now hovering on the brink of nuclear war, the world.
But the most effective deaths on For All Mankind, which is to say the most truthful, aren’t drawn-out and dramatized, but random, abrupt, even stupid. In the first season, Ed Baldwin, a gruff, hypermasculine veteran of the Korean War, yells at his young son, Shane (played by brothers Teddy and Tait Blum at different ages), for getting into trouble at school just before Ed takes off for a spell in the U.S.’s first manned moon base. Due to a series of ill-fated events, Ed ends up stranded alone on the moon, and Shane, furious at both Ed and his equally stern mother, Karen (Shantel VanSanten), sneaks out of the house to play in a basketball game he’s been forbidden to attend, tears flowing as he bikes furiously away from his parents’ tidy ranch house. The next thing we know, Shane has been hit by a car and is pronounced brain-dead. His parents struggle with guilt as well as the terrible loss: If only Ed had spoken to him with more patience, or Karen hadn’t grounded him and then left him alone, Shane might never have stormed off, might still be alive. But they’re eventually forced to accept that Shane died not because they were flawed parents or their son made a terrible mistake, but because sometimes terrible things happen for no reason at all.
Death hangs heavy over any work of counterfactual fiction. There are few what-ifs as powerful as wondering what might have happened if Martin Luther King Jr. had lived to fight poverty the way he did racial injustice, or if Tupac had kept making music into his 30s and beyond. (The show’s most Boomery affectation is not its space-race boosterism but the frequency with which it reminds us that John Lennon is still alive.) For All Mankind itself stems from such a turning point, although the show never quite got around to informing its audience: According to co-creator Ronald D. Moore, the reason why the Russians beat the U.S. to the moon in their alternate universe is because Sergei Korolev, the father of the Soviet space program, survived the surgery that, in our world, killed him in January 1966. But the tragedy that haunts the first season doesn’t take place on screen: the deaths of NASA astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee during preparation for what would have been the first Apollo mission. The incident was as horrific as it was mundane, an errant spark during a routine test that started a fire in the oxygen-rich space capsule and burned all three men alive within seconds. In For All Mankind’s telling, the determination to avoid a similar tragedy made NASA overly risk-averse, which is why our timeline’s space race essentially fizzled out after the moon started to feel old hat. It’s only the setback of the series’ Russians getting there first that forces the agency—and the nation—out of its defensive crouch. Even when a Saturn V rocket explodes on the launchpad, killing a dozen NASA staffers, it doesn’t break their stride, because they’re reconciled to the reality that no matter what precautions they take, people are still going to die.
That’s not to say all of For All Mankind’s deaths are meaningless. In fact, some of them are almost too meaningful. In the third season, Gordon and Tracy Stevens have become legends in death, memorialized in a statue at NASA headquarters and immortalized by a Dennis Quaid–Meg Ryan biopic. But these honors are cold comfort to their sons, Danny (Casey W. Johnson ) and Jimmy (David Chandler), whose personal grief has been eclipsed by national mythology. Ten years later, they’re still wrecked by the loss, and defined by it. Danny has followed his parents into the astronaut program, but dangerously unstable and recovering from addiction, he resents his parents both for dying and for setting an example he can never live up to. In the season premiere, Danny risks his own life to stop a privately run space station from orbital disintegration, but his heroism feels more compulsory than admirable—what else could Gordo and Tracy’s son do?—and survival almost reads as a kind of failure. There will be no statues of Danny Stevens. Meanwhile, Jimmy falls in with a group of conspiracy theorists who are convinced that his parents’ death was staged by the government. They’re fuzzy on how and why, but anything is better than believing that they orphaned him on purpose.
The posthumous canonization of Gordon and Tracy Stevens is well-intentioned, but there’s also something cruel about the way it takes their deaths away from the people to whom they meant the most. The public spectacle makes private mourning seem insignificant, and it keeps them from reckoning with the sheer, brutal unreason of death. For All Mankind frequently reminds us that space is an environment so fundamentally inhospitable to human life that the tiniest misstep can be fatal—and if there’s time to say anything before you die, it’s less likely to be a fond farewell than it is “Oh shit.” When I think about my own death, the scenarios that stick aren’t tragic or terrifying, but the ones in which I die like a dope, falling off a ladder or grabbing the wrong end of an electrical cord. There’s something oddly comforting about a show that acknowledges even astronauts can die meaningless deaths, and the worlds will keep on turning.