For All Mankind is one of my favorite TV shows of the past few years. It imagines how things might have gone if the Soviet Union had landed a person on the moon first and the Space Race—and the USSR itself—had continued indefinitely. Showrun by Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica alumnus Ronald D. Moore, the series is very well made. The music, acting, and visual effects are all top-notch. Apple has clearly put decent money into it.
But watching it is bittersweet. On the screen, we see a NASA that’s firing on all cylinders and inspiring the public, who in turn reward it with their attention (and their tax dollars). It’s true that the agency’s motives aren’t completely pure; it has one eye on the advancement of science and one on showing up the Soviets. But it’s still a public organization and, in its best moments, really is going in peace for all of humanity.
Things out the window in 2023 look different. NASA hasn’t launched a crewed mission in over a decade. Their plans to return to the Moon don’t seem to have generated a lot of public enthusiasm. We still have astronauts on the International Space Station, but since the end of the Space Shuttle program we’ve had to bum rides from Russia and, more recently, private spaceflight companies.
At least from the American perspective, it’s these companies that are driving the action today in space exploration. These companies are run by some of the richest men in history—men who have made their fortunes by exploiting their employees and their customers, by being born into emerald-mine money, by blithely ignoring laws that they don’t like. Having won the game of capitalism, they’re competing with each other to see who can be the first, who can go the furthest. Modern American spaceflight is doing nothing “for all mankind”; it’s a pissing contest for billionaires.
A couple of years ago I wrote,
It never occurred to me as I was watching Star Trek as a kid, but the computer on the U.S.S. Enterprise wasn’t an IBM computer or a Weyland-Yutani computer or an Apple computer. It was just “the computer.” I think the idea that we didn’t need for-profit corporations to make all that amazing technology was a subtle but meaningful bit of world-building.
We don’t have a For All Mankind present. We can still have a Star Trek future. But we have to stop acting as if for-profit companies are the only sources of dynamism and innovation in our society. And we have to stop letting the leaders of those companies treat the entire Earth—and beyond—as their plaything.