Future Tense

The First Goes Where Most Space Stories Don’t

Hulu’s new show is more interested in bureaucracy than in intergalactic travel. That’s great.

In a scene from The First, Sean Penn's Tom Hagerty, wearing a NASA uniform, stands with his arms crossed.
Sean Penn in The First.
Alan Markfield/Hulu

This article contains spoilers for Season 1 of The First.

Science fiction typically celebrates the drama of space travel: the stomach-twisting hope of a potentially habitable planet, the enchantment and menaces of microgravity, rogue A.I., intrepid rescues, alien enemies, warp drives, wormholes. Such stories often bypass the near future for the far future, or the plausible for the impossible, relying on concepts such as faster-than-light travel.

Hulu’s new series The First, on the other hand, settles itself in realism, chronicling the first steps of a Mars mission: funding, crew selection, training, testing, setbacks, difficult decisions, more setbacks.

In mining the often grim practical, bureaucratic, political, financial, and emotional realities of space travel, the show provides unusual verisimilitude. The First cultivates viewers’ understanding of what goes into a Mars mission—a subject about which we’ll be making increasingly important decisions in the future.

Genre-wise, The First feels like a slow, serious prequel to The Martian. Viewers hoping to see star Sean Penn “science the shit” out of things on Mars will be disappointed, but the two are similarly plausible—true science fiction, as opposed to science fantasy. But unlike The Martian, The First trades action for conversation, highlighting the fact that there is life and death in bureaucratic details. In so doing, The First offers new depth regarding what humanity stands to gain from investing in space exploration—and what it stands to lose.

Fifty-seven years after Soviet and American astronauts reached outer space for the first time, politicians and civilians alike are still asking the same question: “Why should we spend resources on space exploration when there’s so much need on Earth?” In the 1960s, the answer reflected Cold War tensions and the militarization of space, as well as fervent patriotism. The First makes no mention of international competition and avoids Kennedy-esque grandiloquence about needing to protect space from communism or weapons, perhaps because that would make for an easier sell. In fact, the show stacks the deck against the mission in the first episode when the initial Mars mission fails. Those of us who remember watching the Challenger break apart in flame shortly after launch or the Columbia shuttle’s disintegration upon re-entry will experience visceral déjà vu as the first Proximity shuttle explodes. Just as frozen O-rings caused the Challenger’s detonation, an astronaut’s errant “lucky” quarter seals this crew’s fate, driving home the message that every detail and ounce matters—there’s no room for error.

By illustrating that space exploration can and sometimes will end in tragedy, The First lets the players—and the viewers—devise strategies for persuading the government to try again. NASA halted all shuttle flights for two years after the Columbia disaster to investigate the cause, which was the first move in the eventual suspension of the shuttle program. Who could blame the government on The First for doing the same thing, especially when politicians feel they’ve wasted billions of dollars on the first launch with nothing to show for it except constituents with unfunded needs? They can’t afford to lose more political capital, especially with re-election on the line. The president (a no-nonsense Jeannie Berlin) doesn’t want to look like a chump for dumping good money after bad, and who’s to say attempt No. 2 will fare any better?

The First portrays a collaboration between NASA and a private company, Vista (helmed by a steady British CEO played by Natascha McElhone). Thus, it’s in their technology that the government and the astronauts have to trust. In real life, the retirement of NASA’s shuttle program allowed private companies such as SpaceX to begin filling the void, first with cargo runs to the International Space Station and, if all goes as planned, eventually by bringing astronauts to Mars. Obama encouraged such partnerships in his 2010 space speech, and launches have increased dramatically since private companies got into the space transport market. While an argument in favor of private space companies is that competition will drive down prices and catalyze technological progress, The First makes it clear that even the most productive partnerships will not yield those benefits easily.

The show also finds drama in the kind of infuriatingly mundane technical glitch that could throw off a Mars mission. As real-world strategies have detailed, Vista sends equipment to Mars ahead of the astronauts to help facilitate their adjustment to the Red Planet. Perhaps the most important is the Mars Ascent Vehicle, which you might remember from The Martian—the vehicle responsible for getting the crew off the surface of Mars when it’s time to come home (NASA is currently working on a MAV to bring back samples from Mars for analysis on Earth). After a software upgrade, mission control loses contact with the MAV, putting everything in jeopardy.

What follows is another example of how The First trades the usual space-show moments of cosmic grandiosity for quiet personal ones. When Vista is unable to troubleshoot the MAV, significantly raising the risk of death if the astronauts manage to get there, each crew member has heart-rending conversations with their loved ones in which they say, “If you don’t want me to go, tell me.” But their partners, parents, and children love them too much to ask them to stay. Viewers see what the mission means to the crew—what it must mean to them—for them to leave their families. An unfathomable decision, but one they’ve spent their lives waiting to make.

By showing the countless obstacles that must be overcome, The First demonstrates what a tremendous accomplishment leaving Earth really is. “Space is hard,” The First whispers in scene after scene, and not just once astronauts are there. The show’s patient narrative provides a big payoff: By the time the crew climbs into the shuttle for the second launch, it feels like an utter miracle they’re even there. It serves as a reminder that humans are still capable of greatness, and that greatness isn’t just about staggering technology and far-flung destinations, but about the people whose minds are eclipsed only by their hearts and their hope. Every astronaut who’s ever climbed into a spacecraft has been willing to leave everyone and everything they know behind, forever.

According to NASA, “the first humans who will step foot on Mars are walking the Earth today.” The First makes us wonder who these people are and makes us ready to cheer them on. These are the sorts of space stories we need to see more of—the ones that take seriously the possibility that perhaps we don’t have a space future, or at least not the one we’ve imagined and read about for decades. What would that mean for humanity? But that question presents a false dichotomy: either we invest in space (or going to Mars) or we invest in Earth and its people. To invest in space exploration is to invest in Earth and the human race.