Did NASA Just Spoil the Plot of 2023's Best Sci-Fi Show?
The rules of space travel are being debated in real life and on TV.
One of the coolest aspects of the critically acclaimed Apple TV+ series For All Mankind is its impressive realism when it comes to space policy. While the alternate timeline in For All Mankind offers some aspirational outcomes — like more women and people of color in space — it depicts the journey to those endpoints realistically. In Season 1, President Nixon is motivated to put more women in space to one-up the USSR. In Season 3, the race to Mars is as much about securing resources as it is about the spirit of exploration. And, in the forthcoming Season 4, the very nature of why we set out to colonize the Moon and Mars is put into question.
But, if you find yourself getting sucked into the ethical and philosophical debates that span the forthcoming new episodes of For All Mankind (starting on November 10, 2023) you may be shocked to learn that in real life, some of these exact same issues are central to urgent conversations about upcoming real-life missions to both the Moon and Mars. On October 4, 2023, during the International Astronautical Conference, in Baku, Azerbaijan, many of the talking points played out exactly like the upcoming season of For All Mankind. This conference didn’t spoil the new season outright, but in some ways, it also kind of did — at least, philosophically.
In an address to the conference from Pam Melroy, NASA’s Deputy Administrator, the focus of figuring out ethics and laws on the Moon and Mars were of paramount importance. In her presentation, called “Going for Humanity: Creating a Responsible and Sustainable Universe,” Melroy spoke for the ongoing need to have serious conversations about making sure the exploration of space remained peaceful.
“We have a recurring tenet stating that we will conduct all activities for the exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes consistent with international obligations for responsible behavior,” Melroy said. “Those two words are very critical: responsible behavior. So beyond environmental and legal issues, what does that really mean? So we know we have to comply with the law, but what else does it mean?”
Melroy then made it clear that NASA has already recommended “deeper scrutiny” when it comes to determining “the cultural and societal implications of future exploration,” relative to “ responsible use of the Moon to Mars architecture.” Basically, she felt that as the Artemis missions gear up to actually land on the Moon for the first time in over five decades, the various space agencies of the world have to come together to drill down more closely on our collective view of space ethics.
Space Ethics in For All Mankind
In For All Mankind Season 4 — which takes place in a fictional 2003 — the concept of establishing norms and regulating responsible behavior on Mars takes a variety of different forms. No spoilers here, but a lot of what Melory is talking about in 2023 is exactly what the fictional astronauts and other space colonists run into on the show in Season 4. And like several characters in For All Mankind, Melroy is a former astronaut herself, turned administrator. She understands that there’s a technical side to space travel and having it happen successfully, but, because our dreams of science fiction are possibly coming true, very, very soon, there needs to be a clear, global agreement on what constitutes “responsible behavior” in space.
Throughout the three previous seasons of For All Mankind, viewers have seen the nations of the world work out ad-hoc peace deals to make the exploration of space more manageable. In real life, our version of this is the Artemis Accords. As Melroy put it during the IAC: “In plain language, the Artemis Accords take the next step beyond the Outer Space Treaty to create a practical set of principles and guidelines for how we should approach exploring the Moon, allowing for the adoption of norms of responsible behavior and best practices.”
In Season 2 of For All Mankind, which took place in an alternate 1983, there were no adoptions of norms for responsible behavior on the Moon, which led to actual guns on the lunar surface, which, of course, seems nuts now. In Season 4, there is a political treaty in place that’s not too different than the Artemis Accords, though this one is focused on Mars. Because For All Mankind is a drama show, not everything goes to plan. But it also demonstrates why science fiction can be a powerful ally when it comes to real-life space policy.
It may feel like the Artemis Accords are the first step toward creating a Star Trek-esque United Federation of Planets. In fact, in 2020, NASA’s Mike Gold said: “Via the Artemis Accords, we hope that the future will look a lot more like Star Trek, and a lot less like Star Wars by getting ahead of these issues.”
But, the establishment of the Artemis Accords doesn’t instantly mean we can fast-forward to the peaceful Trek-life future. And it’s there where For All Mankind is perhaps the most useful and down-to-Mars sci-fi show in a very long time. With this series, the question of peace in space isn’t really an analogy or a metaphor. Instead, it’s simply an alternate timeline in which every global space agency faced the exact same problem 20 years ago, that we’re facing right now.
If space policy philosophers and policy experts want some ideas on what to do right — and what to do wrong — when it comes to the nitty-gritty of space law, For All Mankind may be the most proactive sci-fi show of the moment. And for the rest of us, who enjoy science fiction equally with real space news, the line between the adventures of Danielle Poole, Ed Baldwin, NASA, and Helios, are all getting shockingly blurred with the reality of Artemis, NASA, and SpaceX.