The celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing this week are about a month too late. The first human to step foot onto the lunar surface — Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov — did so on June 26, 1969.
Or so is the conceit and departure from real history in the Apple TV+ series "For All Mankind," premiering with the new streaming service this fall.
"For our story, we fade in on the Soviet landing on the moon and it takes place about a month or so, a few weeks prior to Apollo 11. So in our version of history, the United States is just shocked because the Soviets just kind of come out of nowhere and grab the prize right out from under our noses, at the last second," series creator Ronald D. Moore told collectSPACE.com in a recent call with reporters.
In reality, U.S. astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin — who remain figures in "For All Mankind" — touched down at Tranquility Base on July 20, 1969. Leonov is also adapted for the show from real history: he was the first person to conduct a spacewalk in 1965 and was training for a one-man landing on the moon before the Soviet lunar program was canceled.
Moore, whose prior award-winning work on "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and the re-imagined "Battlestar Galactica" makes him no stranger to crafting alternate, albeit future, space timelines, credits former NASA astronaut Garrett Reisman for the key plot point of "For All Mankind."
"It's important to note that the idea for the Russians to beat us to the moon in this piece actually came from a conversation I had with Garrett," said Moore. "He and I were having lunch and I was picking his brain about ways of doing this. How and why would the space race have continued, because that was the premise I was starting with, and I was just groping for what would be the impetus."
Until his chat with Reisman, Moore had been unaware of how close the former Soviet Union had been to launching its own crewed missions to the moon. As Reisman explained, if it had not been for some setbacks — particularly the loss of the Soviet space program's Chief Designer Sergei Korolev — Leonov may very well have been the first man on the moon.
"Korolev had died in, I believe, 1966, on the table during a surgery in Moscow. Different sources say different things, but it seemed like it was a botched surgery for some gastrointestinal problem," said Moore. "As a result, the Soviet program was really never the same. The N1 rocket that they had designed for their moon attempt never really got off the ground, it had explosions and so on."
"So our deeper premise, even though it's not really stated in our pilot episode, is that Korolev lives — he survived the surgery, kept the Soviet program together, was able to solve the design flaws in the N1 rocket and accelerated the program," Moore described.
Reisman, who Moore recruited to serve as a technical advisor for the series, was hooked on the show from the start.
"My eyes kind of lit up because I thought, 'Wow, that is such a great premise for a show,'" said the former astronaut, who logged 107 days off Earth on space shuttle and International Space Station missions. "Getting a chance to work on this has been a really awesome experience for me personally. And what's really fantastic is how much everybody [connected to the show] is really passionate about getting the details and the technical parts of it correct."
In addition to Reisman, Moore consulted with graphic designers Mike and Denise Okuda, who have worked on both "Star Trek" and NASA projects, and Apollo-era flight director Gerry Griffin.
"I was called in to take a look at the mission control aspects and the displays and the realness and talk to the actors who were going to play the ground piece of this," said Griffin. "The mission control set was really, really good. When I walked into it, I felt like I had walked into the control center in Houston."
Those historically-accurate set pieces though, begin to diverge from reality as the U.S. space program meets the challenges of the ongoing space race, said Moore.
"For season one, we start with the base of what really was there in 1969. We start with the reality of the Apollo program and the Apollo spacecraft and Saturn V and all of that, and then we move forward," he said. "Even when we get to the moon base, which is ahistorical, we based it on essentially repurposing what was going to be [the first U.S. space station] Skylab in our version of events."
Being able to recognize the references to real space history will add to the viewing experience but won't be necessary to enjoy "For All Mankind," said Moore.
"I believe the story can exist without knowing the history. I mean, I think as long as the audience knows that the Russians didn't get there first, I think that's the big thing," said Moore with a laugh. "And yeah, maybe there's a percentage of the population that is unaware of that — sad but true — but okay, whatever. Yes, you need to know at least that Neil Armstrong, an American, was the first man on the moon."
"As long as you know that, just go with this for the ride and I think it's the kind of show that should pique your interest about what's real and what's not. I think most people probably know there weren't women in the space program until much later. I think they know that certain things didn't happen. We don't have a moon base."
"I think for other people who do know the history, there will be all kinds of fascinating tidbits, some of them big, some of them background, almost Easter egg-like details of things happening on television sets and references to historical events and political events and cultural events that are all slightly different or radically different in our world," Moore told collectSPACE.
Finding those anachronisms is part of the fun, added Reisman.
"One of the really neat things is that one of the premises of the whole show is that as a result of all of the spinoffs and all of the investment in space transportation technologies that come from the continuing of the program, that technology as a whole advances more rapidly than it did in reality," said Reisman. "So as the season goes on, you start seeing modifications that show up before their time."
"That was intentional. So hopefully, you'll really enjoy watching those little details," Reisman said.
For Moore personally, "For All Mankind" has provided an opportunity to revisit the events of 50 years ago that gave rise to his present career.
"I grew up with the Apollo program as a kid. It was really the catalyst for inspiring me to become interested in science fiction overall. So it was very important in my personal life," he said. "And when I was growing up watching the space program in the '70s, I thought it was going to go places. I thought it was going to go much bigger than it did. I had dreams of watching moon bases and colonization and all kinds of things that never came to pass."
"The idea of doing the history that I never got to see was personally really exciting and interesting to me," said Moore.
Click through to collectSPACE to watch the "For All Mankind" featurette "Remembering Apollo 11."
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