‘For All Mankind’ Showrunner Ronald D. Moore on His Alt History Space Race Apple+ Series

     July 15, 2019

From creator/showrunner Ronald D. Moore (Outlander, Battlestar Galactica), For All Mankind will debut exclusively on the new video subscription service Apple TV+, which will feature original shows, movies and documentaries, when it launches this fall through the Apple TV app. The 10-episode, hour-long highly anticipated drama series explores what would have happened, if the USSR beat the US to the moon and the global space race never ended, placing NASA astronauts, engineers and their families at the center of a fascinating alternate history timeline. The series stars Joel Kinnaman, Michael Dorman, Sarah Jones, Shantel VanSanten, Wrenn Schmidt and Jodi Balfour, and features a number of real historical figures from the era.

With the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 approaching on July 20th, executive producer/writer Ronald D. Moore took part in a conference call, along with NASA flight director Gerry Griffin and engineer and former NASA astronaut Garrett Reisman (who both serve as technical advisors on the series), to talk to some outlets about the upcoming TV series. During the interview, they discussed how this ended up as an alternative history story, keeping things as accurate as possible to the time period, what brought this series to the Apple TV+ streaming service, the characters at the center of this story, how deeply they get into the Soviet side of the story, the biggest production challenges in recreating this era, why they weren’t able to get direct approval from NASA, and whether they’re looking to continue telling this story in future seasons.

Question: Alternative history stories exist in contemporary pop culture, from The Man in the High Castle to The Watchmen, and just about anything by Harry Turtledove. Ron, what pulled you into this sub-genre?

RONALD D. MOORE: It was a couple of things. One was just my own personal interest in and passion for the subject. 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. So, it was very important, in my personal life. 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 idea of doing the history that I never got to see was personally really exciting and interesting to me. And then, on a creative level, separate from that, it was also interesting, in the concept of this particular show, to start at the beginning. The Man in the High Castle, and a lot of alternate history pieces, typically throw you into that existing world. On High Castle, the Nazis have already won, the Japanese have already won, and you’re in this other world. This was an opportunity to see it start and see how it developed. And also, the other difference for me is that this particular piece is very aspirational. It’s a very positive idea of a better world that could come about from an alternate history piece. Alternate history, not always, but tends to go to the dark and the dystopian. Terrible things happen and awful things have taken place, and the alternate world is a very dark and brooding one. Ours is going in the opposite direction. It’s a very positive one. It’s like, “Wow, by expanding the space racing and stepping strongly into the universe, the world became a better place, and the nation became a better place.” It’s a very optimistic sort of idea for an alternate history piece.

We’re about to mark the 50th anniversary of the moon landing on July 20, 1969. Can you talk about making your departure point from what actually happened? When does the first Soviet moon landing happen, in your universe, and how important was it to present what does stay the same as an accurate look at what we know from history?

MOORE: First of all, it’s important to note that the idea for the Russians to beat us the moon in this piece actually came from a conversation I had with Garrett [Reisman]. Garrett 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? That was the premise that I was starting with. What would be the impetus for the space race to continue beyond Apollo 17? And he said, “Well, you don’t realize how close to the Russians came to getting to the moon.” I said, “Really? I didn’t really know that they even tried.” He said, Oh, yeah!” I was fascinated with that concept. So, as we started doing our research for the show, and going back to figure out where the pivot point, or the butterfly effect moment would be, I held onto the idea that the chief designer of the Soviet program, Sergei Korolev, died on the table during a surgery in Moscow that different sources say different things about, but it seems like it was a botched surgery for some gastrointestinal problem. He died and, as a result, the Soviet program was really never the same. The rocket that they had designed for their moon attempt literally never really got off the ground and had explosions. So, our deeper premise, even though it’s not really stated in our pilot episode, is that Korolev lives. He survived the surgery and kept the Soviet program together, and was able to solve the design flaws in the rocket. He accelerated the program and had enough juice to keep the whole bureaucracy together and the funding going, and that’s when it all changed. For our story, we fade in on the Soviet landing on the moon, and it takes place about two weeks prior to Apollo 11, and the United States is just shocked because the Soviets came out of nowhere and grabbed the prize, right out from under our noses, at the last second.

GERRY GRIFFIN: I was actually called in to really take a look at the mission control aspects and the displays and the realness, and talk to the actors that were going to play the ground piece of this. The mission control set was really, really good. In fact, when I walked into it, I felt like I ‘d walked into the control center in Houston. And then, I got spent quite a bit of time with the actors and talked about how we did certain things, and I could tell they were soaking it up, like a sponge, and that they were gonna do a great job. I haven’t seen the first episode yet, but I know it’s gonna be good. It’s gonna be extremely realistic and keep in good stead with what would have been done. No matter what the alternate history path might take, it’s gonna look very accurate.

GARRETT REISMAN: From that very first lunch that I had with Ron, over at Space X, when he voiced the idea of, “Hey, what if we have an alternate history, where the Russians actually get there ahead of Apollo 11?,” my eyes lit up and I thought, “Wow, that is such a great premise for a show. That could be really, really entertaining.” I loved it. I actually really fell in love with the premise, right there, on the spot. And then, getting a chance to work on this has been a really awesome experience for me, personally. What’s really fantastic is how much everybody is really passionate about getting the details correct and the technical parts of it correct. At the same time, I’ve been trying very hard to not let any the truth get in the way of a good story. One of the things I’m very cognizant about is that what’s gonna make this show resonate with people is the story and the characters, and not necessarily whether they have the right instrument panel configuration, or whatever. At the same time, it’s really fun when we try to do both. We try to get it right, make sure the story is preserved and strong. Doing both, at the same time, is what makes it really interesting for me. When you watch the show, hopefully it feels real and everything seems like it’s the way it should be, but at the same time, I hope everybody’s really, really entertained.

With all of the new streaming services, why did you want to bring this show to Apple TV+, in particular?

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Image via Apple

MOORE: It actually goes to my personal relationship with Zack Van Amburg, who is now one of the co-presidents at Apple TV+. Zack had been one of the co-presidents at Sony Television for many years, and I’ve had a deal with Sony for a long time. He and I had briefly talked about doing a show set at NASA in the ‘70s, around the Skylab era, about many years ago, and it never really got off the ground, so we didn’t talk about it much further. And then, when he went to Apple a couple of years ago, soon after he had taken up his job there, he just called me over to see the new offices and have a general chat. I came over and, in the middle of that conversation, he was like, “You know, I still think about that idea about NASA in the ‘70s. What do you think about doing a Mad Men at NASA?” I said, “Oh, that would be really interesting.” He said, “Think about that.” And as I thought about it, I thought to myself, “You could certainly do that show, and that’s a great show, on some level, where you do a very character-oriented piece that is really about the people in and around the office complex of NASA.” But the larger story of the space program, in my opinion, was depressing because, in the ‘70s there was a history of budget cutbacks and of the ambitions being pulled back, smaller and smaller. In the beginning, they had hopes to go to Mars, and they had hopes for moon bases and various space systems. Essentially, it all got paired down and whittled down. They canceled Apollo 18, 19 and 20, they only did one Skylab instead of two, they canceled Mars altogether, and they focused everything on the space shuttle. I quickly said to Zack that the more exciting thing to me was to do the space program that I felt we were promised, but never got. That’s how the journey to the alternate history version was born, and it’s at Apple because it came out of our personal relationship. 

How many episodes will make up this season?

MOORE: It’s 10 episodes, and each episode is an hour long.

What kind of budget did Apple let you play with?

MOORE: A healthy one. It’s not Game of Thrones money, but it’s a healthy budget.

Can you talk about the characters at the center of this story and the casting process you went through for this?

MOORE: We tried to focus the show on both astronauts and people in and around mission control and the Johnson Space Center. It’s a mixture of the people in front of the camera and behind the camera, if you want to think about it in those terms. Two of our characters are Ed Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman) and Gordo Stevens (Michael Dorman), who are astronauts that, in our version of the world, were originally on Apollo 10, and then they come to the forefront. As the story develops, over the first few episodes, they’re our primary astronauts. We also have characters like Neil Armstrong (Jeff Branson) and Buzz Aldrin (Chris Agos) and Deke Slayton (Chris Bauer), who are real historical figures, and they’re in the show, as well. And then, we have characters like Ed’s wife, Karen (Shantel VanSanten), and Gordo’s wife, Tracy (Sarah Jones). Tracy takes an interesting path that I won’t really get into, but essentially she’s going to become an astronaut, through an interesting story that’s unexpected, but at the same time, rooted in some real historical figures that were spouses of astronauts in the program, who were pilots, in their own right. We also have Gene Kranz, who’s another character that was a real historical figure, as a flight director in mission control. The casting process was thorough and it took quite awhile to find the right balance of people. It was really important to us that while Joel Kinnaman, who plays Ed Baldwin, is clearly the lead in the series, it’s very much an ensemble piece. It’s very much about all of the characters’ lives – their home lives and their professional lives. The nature of the series is that it will expand and continue going in a lot of different directions, so we needed a cast where you felt the chemistry, overall, was gonna work, in the long term. In certain episodes, we’ll emphasize certain characters or character pairings, and then in the next episode, they might recede into the background and bring others forward. We’ll keep that interesting rhythm going, where you’re never following just one person’s story through it all. It will be many threads in a very large, evolving tapestry of players. So, it was an interesting jigsaw puzzle to put together. We had to feel like all of these different characters, and all of these different actors and actresses, were gonna form something greater than the sum of the parts. That was the task in front of us.

Do you have a release date for the series?

MOORE: We don’t have a release date yet. Apple has just said that it’s gonna be in the fall. Honestly, that’s as much as I know.

Since a chunk of your audience is going to be people who were not alive for Apollo or the space race, how are you handling distinguishing and informing them about what was real and where the story departs?

MOORE: I believe the story can exist without knowing the history. As long as the audience knows that the Russians didn’t get there first, that’s the big thing. Maybe there’s a percentage of the population that is unaware of that, sad but true, but whatever. You need to know that Neil Armstrong, an American, was the first man on the moon. As long as you know that, just go with us for the ride. It’s the kind of show that should peak your interest about what’s real and what’s not. Most people probably know that there weren’t women in a space program, until much later. I think that they know certain things didn’t happen. We don’t have a moon base. So, by and large, even people who have only the most surface knowledge of the space program will get that this is a very different history than what really happened. And for other people who do know history, there’ll be all kinds of fascinating tidbits, some of them big, some of them background, almost Easter egg details of things happening on television sets, and references to historical, political and cultural events, that are slightly different in our world, or radically different in our world. I think people will be motivated to probably go look up some of those things online. We talked with Apple, during the development of the show, about how, at some point in the future, there might be resources where a viewer can dive deeper into some of these topics. I’m not sure how much of that will be available at the beginning or later because it’s still just a general talking point between us, but Apple does want the ability, eventually, for viewers to be able to do a deep dive into the background of the historical facts versus the historical fiction of the show. But even if you’re not a history buff, or you’re not interested in history, the character story and the story itself is strong enough to pull you in, and you’ll feel that you’re watching something real. That was really important to us. That’s why we had Garrett and Gerry come in, and we spent a lot of time and research, not just on the technical aspects of the show, but also on the reality of life, in and around NASA and the world, in 1969 and the early ‘70s, to really portray that as authentically as we can, even as we’re making changes within that. We just want the audience to always believe that this is really happening, this is real, and this is all plausible.

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