For All Mankind: Complex Quasi-History without the Self-Loathing Ennui

The speculative TV series celebrates resilience in adversity—a message American students need right now
FILE - This Dec. 24, 1968, file photo made available by NASA shows the Earth behind the surface of the moon during the Apollo 8 mission. (William Anders/NASA via AP, File)
The first “earthrise” photo came from the manned Apollo 8 mission to the moon in 1968. For All Mankind posits an alternative history if the Soviet Union, not the U.S., had made the first lunar landing a year later.

For All Mankind just wrapped its fourth season on AppleTV+. It’s propulsive, beautifully written, terrifically acted, and plays like a first-run theatrical release. If you’ve not seen it, you really should check it out. Oh, and it ought to be mandatory viewing for the nation’s social studies teachers.

The premise is that the Soviet Union landed on the moon just before the U.S. did in 1969, and the show captures the remarkable ripples from that one small change. The U.S.-Soviet competition heats up in space, keeping our gaze riveted to the frontier. This changes politics (Ted Kennedy beats Nixon in ’72), social movements (“a woman’s place is in space”), science (electric cars show up decades earlier), and much else.

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As creator Ronald D. Moore explained when the show launched in 2019:

I grew up with the Apollo program, as a kid, and it was really the catalyst for inspiring me to become interested in science fiction, overall. . . . And when I was growing up, watching the space program in the ’70s, I thought it was gonna go places. I thought it was gonna go much bigger than it did. I had dreams of moon bases and colonization, and all kinds of things that never came to pass.

The narrative features one remarkable moment after another, many of them ripped from the headlines. Moon landings, hair-raising rescues, terrorism, conspiracy theories, U.S.-Soviet brinkmanship, multinational partnership, craven politicians, eccentric rich guys, space heists, defections, Mars exploration, and blackmail. The pop-culture stylings are stellar, and the riffing on historic figures is frequently riveting (and even illuminating).

Moved by a defiant gesture of goodwill in space, President Reagan flies to Moscow to defuse a nuclear stand-off. Years later, President Al Gore claims to have discovered an invaluable asteroid (remember when he said he invented the Internet?), sparking an international crisis. Wernher von Braun, Deke Slayton, Lee Atwater, Dick Gephardt, Mikhail Gorbachev, and many others dot the narrative, in ways large and small. It’s great fun if you know the history and is a great chance to play “true / not true” if you don’t.

The series is rich with tragedy, selfishness, cheap politics, and bigotry, but it’s all interwoven with flashes of heroism, honor, aspiration, and sheer awe. I can’t help but reflect that it meshes imagination and introspection in a manner I’ve always found especially apt when it comes to inspiring young minds. In recent years, I fear we’ve lost that balance. As my colleague Robert Pondiscio noted two years ago in “The Unbearable Bleakness of American Schooling,”

[Today] curricula and school culture seem nearly to revel in the bad and the broken, suggesting to children that they have suffered the great misfortune to have been born into a country that is racist to its core, whose founding documents were lies when written, and where democracy is hanging by a thread. Not that it matters, since we are just a few short years away from irreversible climate catastrophe . . .

Pondiscio further noted,

The bestselling and most widely assigned young-adult books of the past 20 years include Thirteen Reasons Why, later made into a Netflix series, which has been accused of glorifying suicide (the title refers to the reasons why a high school girl killed herself) and features scenes of drug use and sexual abuse; and The Hate U Give, also a cinematic success, which centers on the shooting of an unarmed black youth by a police officer. The bildungsroman novel Perks of Being a Wallflower addresses themes of drug use, child molestation, and post-traumatic stress disorder; Vigilante is about a high-school senior’s gang rape.

We’ve come to a point where it can feel like self-loathing and tales of oppression are the hallmark of sophistication and authenticity. Anything more measured (or upbeat!) risks being dismissed as evidence of unseriousness. I regularly hear from college students and K–12 parents that voicing optimistic or patriotic sentiments in class can spark ridicule or derision—even from teachers. Thoughtful left-leaning scholars like Belle Sawhill and Ron Haskins get attacked for their work popularizing “the success sequence,” as militant catastrophists fear that a sense of personal agency may undermine their revolutionary stylings.

Hell, in the course of our history debates, I’m told time and again that plenty of attention is already paid to Valley Forge and the Federalist Papers and Gettysburg and the passage of the 13th Amendment and Pearl Harbor and the Berlin Airlift—that history and civics instruction is little more than a triumphal recitation of presidents and generals. Well, I don’t know what texts or curricula these folks are looking at. That may have been a fair critique in 1984, but I find it to be a remarkable claim in 2024.

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For All Mankind celebrates resilience rather than trauma. And maybe it’s just me, but I’ve always found that teens fare better when they see their world as much more than a hopeless hellscape. I fear that’s gotten lost in the agenda-fueled historical narratives spun by the likes of Howard Zinn, Ibram X. Kendi, and “The 1619 Project.” This stuff has gone to some absurd lengths, as when the superintendent of a New York charter school network urges history teachers to skip tales of black success and instead appreciate that “every lesson is an opportunity to talk about the legacy of systemic racism.”

For All Mankind wrestles at length with issues of gender, race, immigration, and economic inequality but does so in a way that (mostly) feels more interested in honest contemplation than political grandstanding. This makes sense, given that it’s hard to square the rough, practical discipline of space exploration with the far left’s insistence that “hard work” and “rationality” are racist or the far right’s disdain for science and expertise.

You know, a couple years ago, a Vanity Fair reviewer greeted the debut of season 3 by describing For All Mankind as “competence porn of the highest order” and noting that the series dared to ask: “What if the U.S. government did things that were . . . objectively good?” How ’bout that? Admiration for competence and the ability to imagine the U.S. government as a force for good. Talk about embracing the counterculture! Neither sentiment is too popular right now, at least among the social media bullies on the left and the right. But they are good things, nonetheless. They deserve to be embraced. And, especially for the young and those who educate them, they offer something far healthier and more heartening than today’s fashionable catastrophism.


Frederick Hess is an executive editor of Education Next and the author of the blog “Old School with Rick Hess.”

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