What if the Soviet Union had reached the moon before America?
That’s the subject of “For All Mankind,” a new series from Ron Moore on Apple TV. The show suggests that if Russia had indeed reached the moon first, it would have triggered a space race into the 1970s, and subsequently provided a boost to the women’s movement.
President Richard Nixon’s reaction to the Russian moon landing is as much personal as it is political. He does not propose to go down in history as the president who fumbled the ball at the goal line. He orders NASA to create a lunar base to prove to the world that the United States is still first in space.
The second Soviet expedition to the moon involves a woman cosmonaut. President Nixon demands that the United States match the feat by putting an American woman astronaut on the moon. NASA recruits a group of American female astronaut candidates. The space agency starts putting them through a training regimen.
American women training for a mission to the moon gives a shot of adrenalin to the feminist movement. The third episode of the series, titled “Nixon’s Women,” shows scenes of women demonstrating for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) with signs that read, “a woman’s place is in space.”
In real history, the ERA was, at first, not controversial, enjoying bipartisan support. It came within a hairsbreadth of ratification.
Then, Phyllis Schlafly began to campaign against it, raising a number of objections. Some were sensible, some were not, and some, like objections to women in combat, are now obsolete. Could female astronauts in an era where sexism was prevalent have inspired the ratification of the ERA? The series makes it clear. The influence on American history would have been profound.
The fourth episode, “Prime Crew,” starts with one of the women astronaut characters, named Molly Cobb, is chosen as lunar module pilot for Apollo 15. The series bases Cobb on a real-life woman named Jerrie Cobb, a pilot who was part of the so-called Mercury 13 project, which subjected a group of women to the rigorous physical and psychological testing that male astronauts endured at the time. The women performed outstandingly. However, at the time, NASA was not inclined to fly female astronauts. In the real world, the first women American astronaut to fly was Sally Ride in the early 1980s. In the world of “For All Mankind” a woman gets that chance considerably earlier.
The episode depicts the stress the crew of Apollo 15 experiences because of the inclusion of a female astronaut. The male crew members are not too sure of the idea of a woman flying in space. Molly Cobb initially has a chip on her shoulder, certain that her male counterparts don’t respect her. Yet, by launch time, witnessed by many women wearing “A woman’s place is in space” t-shirts, the crew of Apollo 15 has come together with mutual camaraderie.
The depiction of a women astronaut flying to the moon in the show has a real-world counterpart. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine never fails to state that the next moon landing will include “the first woman and the next man.” In 2019, NASA has a cadre of experienced female astronauts. It would be remarkable that one would not be part of the next moon landing.
Bridenstine, a canny former politician, also knows that people tend to admire heroes more when they look like them. The act of flying a woman to the moon will not only inspire women and girls in the STEM fields but expand support for human space exploration. That support will manifest in both the world of “For All Mankind” and in the real world, where we no longer refer to “manned spaceflight” but “human space flight.”
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