War in Space

War in Space

This past weekend, Apple unveiled a teaser trailer for the second season of its upcoming series, For All Mankind, showing off an alternate future of war on the Moon, and it’s pretty scary.

I’m a big fan of this show. If you haven’t seen it, the series reimagines what the space race might have looked like if the Soviet Union took the lead and landed on the Moon first. The result is a prologued space race that sees both the USSR and US trying to one-up one another, and set up their own bases on the moon to ensure a long-term presence. In the first season, see NASA take some baby steps: the US redoubles its efforts, recruiting women and astronauts of color who were previously shut out of the program (in the first half of season 1) and the challenges of setting up a base on the Moon in the second half. It’s certainly worth signing up to Apple TV + for, at least for a free trial.

This first look atSeason 2 shows a jump ahead to the 1980s — teased in the final episode of Season 1, and with the space race well beyond the initial, exploratory stages. The teaser features a speech from Ronald Reagan talking about US dominance and power, and we see that the US and USSR have really stepped up their presence on the Moon, to the point where they have large bases and entire teams of astronauts wielding guns on the lunar surface. It’s a chilling sight: armed astronauts ready to wage war.

Military SF is a genre that’s near and dear to my heart, and on one hand, it’s neat to see a modern TV series playing with the implications of war. Hell, I like the look of military gear, and that one image of the armed astronauts just looks cool, aesthetically, even if the implications are horrifying. (Although — I’m not sure it’s wise to have lights your astronauts like they have — that seems like it makes them the perfect targets. I wonder if night vision goggles would work on the Moon or in space.)

Obviously, I haven’t seen this upcoming season yet, but this trailer did bring up a thought: a continuation of the space race — as it played out — would have been a terrible thing, because it likely would have led to further nuclear proliferation and would have irrevocably militarized space.

“But!” I hear legions of con-going, white-bearded Science Fiction Fans™ and Logically-minded Redditors™ cry out: “if the space race had continued, we would have been on Mars by now!” Color me skeptical and more than a little cynical about this.

The projections that we could have reached Mars, and beyond — come from people like Werner Von Braun — a member of the Nazi Party, natch — who spoke about going to the Moon as a first step towards further space exploration. And sure: we could go to the Moon, to Mars, and beyond tomorrow if the US set it as a priority. We have the technological expertise, just not the will. But those projections are based on assumptions that we’ll naturally go into space and beyond because it’s in our nature to explore, an argument that’s been fed to us with decades of optimistic science fiction like Star Trek and beautiful short films like Erik Wernquist’s Wanderers. There’s certainly truth to that, but it’s not why we went to space in the 1960s and 1970s.

We went to space because it was a natural extension of the arms race between the US and USSR. All of the hardware, the technical expertise, and the personnel were drawn from military sources. The rockets were repurposed (and later purpose-built) delivery vehicles for nuclear warheads, piloted by pilots who cut their teeth flying the latest military aircraft. It’s telling that the first actual scientist to land on the moon was geologist Harrison Schmitt, who was part of Apollo 17, the last mission to touch down on the Moon.

What For All Mankind depicted in Season 1 was a thought experiment: what would have happened had that conflict persisted, if the USSR got to the Moon first? I think it’s probably a series that could have been true to life: if the USSR got to the Moon, I have little doubt that it would have fueled the motivation to continue going. Maybe we’d still be going. But think about what that implication would have been, and what the lunar missions were designed to do: a demonstration of the US’s technical prowess and ability to deliver hardware to the lunar surface. At the time, the implicit threat was that if we could land a person on the Moon, we could certainly bring up a nuclear warhead — 1967 Outer Space Treaty or no.

The nuclear arms race was a huge thing in the 1960s, and while there was the initial Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1968, the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks eventually led to agreements in the 1970s and 1980s. Had the US not been to the Moon first — and with all of the assorted factors that would go into that — I can’t imagine that we’d see those treaties go into force. As it is, these agreements are only as strong as the leaders willing to uphold them. President Donald Trump withdrew from the 1987 INF treaty last year, which has some horrifying implications and possibilities for other agreements.


Despite the optimism that SF fans have for expounding on the lost promise of Apollo, I’m not sure that even if the space race had continued, that we’d be anywhere closer to settling Mars. Sure, maybe we’d send a couple of people over there, but the Red Planet certainly isn’t a reason for why we’d keep an exorbitantly expensive program up and running. If the motivation of Apollo was to show off one’s advanced technical skills / military budget, there’s not really a case you can make for Mars. It’s not a high ground from which you can lob nuclear warheads down on Moscow (or wherever your enemies are). It’s essentially Antarctica: a desolate outpost that nobody in their right mind really wants to go to, and there’s not much of a strategic value in going. Had Apollo continued, I imagine that what we’d see is continued investment on a lunar base and a presence in our immediate neighborhood, rather than the start to a spacefaring human civilization.

That’s not to say that SF fans are wrong for wanting that type of future. I just don’t think it’s necessarily plausible. Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut novels present a much better reason for wanting to expand into space: necessity because our planet is slowly becoming uninhabitable. The motivations are completely different.

This feels very much like a story that creator Ronald D. Moore is known for. His series Battlestar Galactica has a solid footing when it comes to depicting the military, and asked some big questions about the fate of humanity in the face of an apocalyptic event. This feels like he’s poking away at some of the same questions, just a bit closer to home. We’ll find out whenever For All Mankind comes back.

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Stay tuned for another paid letter in the nearish future, as well as the usual mix of things.