How the Space Fantasy Became Banal

The final frontier, as a setting, has long channeled giddy dreams of human communion. A new group of cultural works explores the opposite possibility.

Astronauts standing in an orderly line
Apple TV+

This story contains mild spoilers through Season 2 of For All Mankind.

During the Geneva Summit of 1985, as Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev attempted to negotiate their way out of the Cold War, the American president paused the proceedings, the lore goes, to pose a question. “What would you do if the United States were suddenly attacked by someone from outer space?” Reagan reportedly asked. “Would you help us?”

“I said, ‘No doubt about it,’” Gorbachev later recalled. “He said, ‘We too.’” And the summit went on from there.

Reagan’s query was perhaps a joke meant to minimize tensions between him and the agent of the place he had once dubbed “an evil empire”; his question also, however, belied a long-standing dream. Reagan was an ardent reader of science fiction. One of the enduring themes of that genre involves the hope that humanity, existentially confronted, might put aside its differences and find a way, finally, to collaborate for the common good. Space, in that vision, is both primal and transcendent: an opportunity for humanity to recalibrate its failings. A place to search for, and perhaps even locate, our better angels.

The allure of For All Mankind, the drama that just finished its fantastic second season on Apple TV+, is that it takes the fond old hopes of collaborative humanity and, with great artistry, crushes them. The alternate history of the space race treats travel beyond Earth not as an opportunity for human improvement, but instead as an extension of human deficiency. The show is one of several recent works, among them the film Stowaway and the novel Project Hail Mary, that question operatic illusions about space. The final frontier, they suggest, will be no different from the other frontiers. Space will be a place of violence, of struggle, of selfishness and occasional grace—a place, that is to say, that bears both the image and the brunt of flawed humanity.

For All Mankind begins with a crescendo: Humans, speaking in soaring terms about technological achievement and common cause, take their first steps on the moon. In this world, however—initially set in the 1960s—the Soviets are the ones who take that giant leap before a rapt and tearful world. The story unfurls from there, as Americans absorb this humiliating loss. NASA, chastened, struggles to assert its dominance over the new frontier. It invests even more in its space program. Understanding that the moon is in some sense a matter of marketing, it ramps up its efforts in public relations. Responding to the fact that the Soviet space program has included women among its ranks, NASA hastily—and half-heartedly—recruits women as well.

The show’s genre may be sci-fi, but its main interest is psychodrama. It skillfully marries major plot twists with subtle insights about the frailties of the human heart. It is interested, deeply, in the idiosyncrasies of the people who form, and inform, NASA’s bureaucracy. (This includes a lengthy subplot about the moral consequences of the organization’s pioneering rocket scientist, Wernher von Braun, having previously worked for the Nazis.) The intimacy of the show, in that regard, makes it less of a typical counterfactual—a grand thought experiment, considering the sweep of history—and more of a finely tuned character study. The imagined timeline here is so minimally changed from the version people actually lived through that viewers might forget that it is, in fact, imagined. Reagan still becomes president. Women who pilot spacecraft continue to be discriminated against back on Earth. The Bob Newhart Show factors prominently into several plotlines.

Tonally, the series shares DNA with films such as Gravity, Apollo 13, The Martian, and other works that explore what happens when vulnerable humans confront the bleak hostilities of space. It diverges, however, in its final message. Human collaboration, in For All Mankind, is not a source of salvation, but rather an impediment to it. You might classify those earlier, more hopeful treatments as “competence porn,” the subgenre that basks in the quiet glory of being good at one’s job. For All Mankind offers a bit of that thrill—its characters are largely both brilliant and passionate—but it studiously withholds broader catharsis. The competence displayed in those previous works is typically a product of selflessness and teamwork: In Apollo 13, for example, you have all of Houston, it seems, working to engineer a solution that will save three astronauts from the consequences of a mechanical failure. In The Martian, you have the whole world, essentially, invested in the effort to save a single man who has been stranded on Mars. (In that case, too, you have an answer to Reagan’s question to Gorbachev. I won’t spoil specific plot points, but suffice it to say that rivals put aside their differences in trying to deliver Mark Watney back to Earth.)

For All Mankind—the title is deeply ironized—has little of those works’ elemental optimism. Yes, the show is awed, sometimes, by space. (Its title sequence features shimmering images across a sprawling darkness, set against an orchestral score.) Mostly, though, the series is curt about what might happen when human brains, with their capacity for selfishness, for suspicion, for war, navigate new worlds. Again and again in this show, people and nations try to work together; again and again, they fail. And the failures escalate, and compound. Season 1’s version of the space race may look roughly familiar to the one real humans lived through; by Season 2, the dreamy rhetoric of a humanity shed of its divisions has been revealed as a pipe dream. Americans have established a full-fledged colony on the moon. (They have named it Jamestown.) The Soviets have built one too. Were there air on the lunar surface, it would be full of tension: The Americans and the representatives of the “evil empire,” their disagreements ported off Earth, are always a mere buggy ride away from each other. The show doesn’t need to do much to emphasize the sense of impending doom. You know there’s going to be fighting, somehow. You know there’s going to be competition, and very likely bloodshed. This is, after all, what humans do.

two astronauts standing side by side
Apple TV+

A modern story of space that is both more tragic and more hopeful than For All Mankind comes from the Netflix movie Stowaway. A retelling, of sorts, of Tom Godwin’s 1954 short story “The Cold Equations,” the film follows a crewed mission to Mars that is wrestling with an unforeseen complication. A ground engineer, Michael (Shamier Anderson), injured during liftoff, ends up as a passenger on the spaceship. The accident that led to Michael’s unplanned joining of the three-member crew also damaged a device that clears carbon dioxide from the air. This leads the astronauts to a horrifying realization: The ship cannot support all four people. Unless one of them dies, all of them will.

Stowaway is a difficult film to watch. It transports the gutting choices of the trolley problem, the philosophical conundrum that asks about the ethics of killing the one to save the many, into the setting of space. Unlike Apollo 13 and The Martian, which take as a given that if humans work together, no one needs to die, Stowaway assumes that sacrifices must be made. The film is, like the story that inspired it, a work of hard science fiction. It eschews idealized treatments of possible worlds in favor of blunt calibrations: the finitude of resources, the immutable laws of physics. Stowaway’s well-meaning humans cannot collaborate their way out of scientific reality. As a consequence, in this version of the final frontier, there is no such thing as a fully happy ending.

Stowaway operates on several different levels. In one way, it’s a conundrum come to life, its pathos derived from the grim demands of survival. In another way, though, it’s a simple workplace drama. The film, in tone, is prosaic. It indulges in very few awe-filled images of an Earth made distant. Its spaceship is not exotic, but pragmatic—an office above all. The ship is home to a folding treadmill, sealed pouches of distinctly unappetizing food, a lab full of plants. Stowaway is, in that way, similar to The Martian, whose protagonist Watney, trained as a botanist, utters the line that might as well be the film’s motto: “I’m going to have to science the shit out of this.”

The two films may diverge in their messages about space as a site of human communion; what they share, though, is a conviction that space is, at this point, fundamentally mundane. The Martian illustrates this not just with its extremely quotidian dialogue, but also with its soundtrack: Rather than the booming orchestrals of the space opera, it features music that is decidedly earthly: disco. “Hot Stuff,” “Turn the Beat Around,” “Love Train”—these are the sounds of The Martian’s version of space. Several other recent works have adopted that mode of sonic banality. One of the best scenes in The Midnight Sky, an otherwise uneven new entry into the annals of space-travel movies, finds the crew of a ship singing along to “Sweet Caroline,” trying to find a moment of levity amid catastrophe. A scene in Season 2 of For All Mankind shows a group of astronauts—people both grand as adventurers and bland as co-workers—joining in a round of Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds.”

The Martian is based on the 2011 novel of the same name from the hard-science-fiction writer Andy Weir. The book, narrated with jovial charm by the stranded astronaut, is notably casual in tone—so much so that, if you take away the details about radiation and telemetry, the story often has the feel of a sitcom. That same tone informs Weir’s latest work, Project Hail Mary. The novel, published this week, adopts a long-standing sci-fi trope: It tells the story of one human, the scientist Ryland Grace, fighting to save humanity from a potential extinction event. Grace awakens on a spaceship only to discover that his fellow crew members have died. Beset, at first, with amnesia, he describes the situation in a manner that is almost aggressively conversational; in this space drama, instead of awe at the giddy fact of a swirling universe, we get detailed descriptions of bodily functions. Weir’s writing emphasizes what it feels like to be a human body navigating an inhuman environment. (It often feels, readers will learn, exceptionally bad.)

Project Hail Mary is an elegant inversion of The Martian: Instead of humanity working to save the life of one person, here is one person working to save all of humanity. But even this most epic of tales is shaped by the centripetal forces of human nature. Before Grace leaves Earth, he writes a controversial paper and is consequently banished from academia—the victim, Weir suggests, of human small-mindedness. (The story’s hints of normalcy are also injected playfully: As he labors to save his species, Grace encounters an alien that he names … Rocky.) Weir is a master of the narrative splice, and Project Hail Mary cuts between Grace’s memories of Earth and his present in space. The effect serves not only to keep the story propulsive; it also suggests a fundamental continuity between terrestrial realities and cosmic ones. The upshot is similar to what you find in Stowaway and For All Mankind: space, made small. Space, a place of possibility, but also constraint. The magic is the mundanity of it all. “This is one of those things I frequently have to explain to my students,” Weir, as Grace, writes:

Gravity doesn’t just “go away” when you’re in orbit. In fact, the gravity you experience in orbit is pretty much the same as you’d experience on the ground. The weightlessness that astronauts experience while in orbit comes from constantly falling. But the curvature of the Earth makes the ground go away at the same rate you fall. So you just fall forever.

That captures things nicely: You just fall forever. These recent assessments of space travel—their wonder made determinedly banal—are an apt outcome of this moment. Space exploration is ever more a matter of corporate interest and corporate wrangling. As billionaires fight for the moon, it becomes much more difficult to think of space as a setting for some kind of absolution—and to believe that humans might yet find ways to escape our humanity. The new fictions reflect that reality.

But they have a streak of optimistic insight too: If there is to be any hope of transcendence, they suggest, in space or any other place, that salvation will demand a clear-eyed assessment of humanity as it is, rather than as it might be. Human nature makes its own kind of gravity. The first-season finale of For All Mankind coincided, as it happens, with the inauguration of the Space Force, the new, real-life military branch established with the recognition that space, for whatever else it might mean to the human story, is also a potential battlefield. Season 2 of For All Mankind skips ahead several years, to the mid-’80s: The moon is now home to many different people. Jamestown, the makeshift colony, is now a full-fledged lunar base. The U.S. is mining the moon for its minerals. So are the Russians. Before long comes the twist that is also, all things considered, an utter inevitability: The humans who claim to be bringing about a better world instead bring guns to the moon.