What If…?

Credit: IMDb

Alternative histories provide a glimpse of how the world might look if historical events had occurred somewhat differently. Philip K. Dick’s novel The Man in the High Castle depicts a world in which Nazi Germany won World War II. Quentin Tarantino’s film “Inglourious Basterds” imagines different outcomes of two plots to assassinate Nazi leaders. More recently, “For All Mankind,” Apple TV+’s successful science fiction series, sketches an alternative history of the space race, as well as a projection of a future based on that alternative history. It provides a view of how the space program might have looked (and might look in the future) if it were less overwhelmingly male. Spoiler alert: The following discussion reveals various plot elements.

“For All Mankind” imagines an alternative reality in which the Soviet Union, rather than the United States, wins the race to the moon. In its three-season run, the show begins by focusing on an alternative version of the early phases of the American space program, then moves much farther into the future by depicting a possible race to exploit the moon’s resources and to be the first to send human beings to Mars. That future is built on a past that is a variation on, rather than a complete departure from, the actual history of space exploration. The outlines of America’s history in the Space Age remain recognizable, but important details change. Among the more important ways in which the program rewrites history is imagining a much earlier and more important role for women in NASA.

The real American space program did include an early experiment with training women as astronauts. Between 1960 and 1962, 25 women underwent testing and training as potential astronauts, and 13 of them (the Mercury 13) completed the program successfully. However, for reasons that remain unclear, the program was terminated without any of the participants becoming full-fledged astronauts.i

In “For All Mankind,” however, this early program continues, and some of the women join the male astronauts and participate in the exploration of the moon and a subsequent mission to Mars. Among the more important female roles in the series are astronaut Molly Cobb (a fictionalized version of one of the Mercury 13 who actually goes into space and eventually becomes launch director); Ellen Wilson (an astronaut who goes to the moon and eventually becomes president of the United States); Tracy Stevens (wife of astronaut Gordon Stevens, who becomes an astronaut herself; both of them die heroically on the moon); Danielle Poole, NASA’s first Black astronaut, who takes part in an early mission to the moon, participates in a fictionalized version of the Apollo-Soyuz docking, and leads the eventual U.S. mission to Mars; and Margo Madison, a character possibly based on early NASA engineer Frances Northcutt, J.D. Madison is a Wernher von Braun protégé who goes on to become the first woman in mission control and, eventually, a senior scientist at NASA.

These fictional women of NASA help us to see what it might be like to be a woman in the space program. For example, Madison’s technical skills are largely ignored by her male colleagues, and she has to rely on male sponsorship to break into a central role in mission control. Male astronauts question the abilities of their female colleagues, despite the fact that most had been experienced pilots and/or had successfully completed the same training program as the men. Several of the female astronauts’ relationships fall apart as their partners and children have difficulty accepting their commitments to space exploration. And Ellen Wilson has to conceal her sexual orientation to avoid disqualification as an astronaut and to make her eventual political career possible. Most of the female characters fall back on female archetypes in order to survive in the “man’s world” of NASA: Madison, the asexual, nerdy geek; Stevens, the woman who exploits her physical attractiveness to get ahead; Poole, the self-effacing, self-sacrificing provider of support; and Cobb, the “cowgirl” who acts just like the “cowboys.” In exploring these gendered roles, and the tensions, slights, and conflicts the female characters experience, “For All Mankind” sheds considerable light on why it can be so difficult for women to be accepted and to succeed in the world of science and technology.

In the end, however, the show does not imagine a space program that was transformed by the inclusion of women. Instead, it depicts a program very much like the one that actually developed, but one that had more female participants. The fictionalized NASA we see does learn to be a bit less sexist, but it does not change significantly to adapt to the problems female astronauts and scientists experience. For example, no family-friendly policies are in evidence, nor do we see any significant managerial effort to combat the stereotypical attitudes that permeate the control room and the astronaut program as a whole. To a great extent, the women in the series succeed because they act like the men do. They commit themselves completely to work and neglect and subordinate their lives outside NASA. They harden their exteriors and present themselves as tough and unemotional. And, they do not challenge; indeed, they embrace the competitive ethos that dominates the social world the astronauts construct.

After watching “For All Mankind,” the viewer is compelled to wonder whether that is all one could hope for. Is the only way for women to succeed in a male-dominated technical organization to act just like the men do? Is it not possible for technical organizations to change, to adapt to women and their abilities and needs, and to value attitudes and behaviors that are not so dominated by traditional gender stereotypes? Would the inclusion of women add nothing to an organization such as NASA beyond demographic difference? “For All Mankind” is probably being realistic in answering all of these questions in the negative. Still, more optimistic viewers might hope for a more “radical” alternative history in which NASA was truly transformed by the inclusion of women.


i Reilly, C. (Sept. 6, 2020). The True Story of the Mercury 13 and the Women Who Never Made It to Space. CNET online.