For All Mankind episode one ended with what, when you really think about it, is a pretty scary cliffhanger: Imagine having just crashed your spaceship on the moon, with no clear answer as to how you’re going to get off of it.
However, “He Built the Saturn V” begins by pretty quickly getting Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin off the lunar surface and back home safely. (It isn’t necessarily the smoothest trip, but hey, as was mentioned in the last episode, “any landing you walk away from.”) And then, it’s all about NASA continuing to bounce back from the ego blow that was losing the race to the moon, somewhat fortified by the success of Apollo 11.
What President Nixon wants — and what the military does too — is for NASA to focus on “the race for the base,” specifically the creation of the first permanent military installation on Mars. Very much against this idea is Werner von Braun, after his past experience with seeing his work taken away from him and given military application.
Floating in the ether is Ed, still trying to figure out what to do given his current position in Siberia — returning to the Navy is an option, except that it’s one his wife hates, as she prefers the space program to worrying constantly about his plane getting shot down. A potential path to personal redemption comes when Congressman Charles Sandman, working with the support of Nixon, asks Ed to testify in front of the committee investigating NASA’s failures. Ed’s basically asked to say what he already said in the pages of Newsweek, and gets told that if he does so, he’s back in the space program. But he instead tells the committee that he was the commander of the Apollo 10 mission, and the ultimate decision to turn back instead of pushing their limits and going to the surface was his. He also resigns from NASA, resigned to going back to the Navy.
Ed’s testimony makes no one happy, but the committee (and Nixon) has other ways to get around von Braun’s unwillingness to support the military moon base. The solution ends up being to, basically, tell the truth, or at least one part of it. Von Braun’s committee testimony ends on an ugly note, as Rep. Sandman confronts him with the brutal truth of his time working as a scientist for the Nazis, specifically that his V-2 rockets were built by prisoners at the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp, and much death resulted. (All of this is right there on the real-life von Braun’s Wikipedia page, to be clear.)
The resulting ambush is heartbreaking to watch, because up until now, especially as seen through Margo’s eyes, von Braun has always been a kindly figure. But he did know, and thus he is clearly on the outs thanks to his poor public performance. Hearing him say “progress is never free” breaks Margo’s heart (and he had just given her his special slide rule!) but it ends up being good news for Ed, because Deke asks him to come back to the program after all — specifically to be a part of Apollo 15 again.
As for the “race to the base,” that’s unknown at this point, even if Nixon does declare publicly that they will do “whatever it takes” to continue America’s journey into space. There’s an uncomfortable question you might end up asking yourself as this episode progresses: Are we … rooting for Nixon? After all, we want to root for the space program, right? And Nixon is supporting the space program with even more resources, but it’s Nixon, for Pete’s sake. Maybe this new alternate reality will lead to a kinder, gentler Nixon? That seems unlikely.
A major detail gets dropped in a pretty low-key way near the end of the episode: During a news broadcast leading up to the launch of Apollo 12, Nixon announces that Henry Kissinger is now in negotiations to end the Vietnam War. Given that, in our timeline, the war wouldn’t end until 1975 (after many, many more deaths) this says a lot about the country’s new priorities, and is also one of those choices where the repercussions could be immeasurable. (For one thing, just think about how many movies about the Vietnam War may never get made.)
“He Built the Saturn V” is largely one of those place-setting episodes that may be essential to future storylines, but lacks some degree of its own momentum. However, it does end with another bombshell: Apollo 12 launches just as another Russian expedition also blasts off almost simultaneously. And this one brings with it a new surprise for the Americans — the new cosmonaut on the surface of the moon is a lady. So the Russians can now claim both the first man and the first woman on the moon. Your move, America.
Houston, We Have Some Bullet Points
• Again, would love to know what kind of music budget this show has, as the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man” can’t be cheap.
• Gordo has his moments of fun, but the hell through which he puts his wife will hopefully have serious consequences for him at some point. The fact that Karen basically has to talk Tracy out of considering divorce by reminding her that she basically can’t without putting her family through hell may be authentic to what astronauts’ wives went through at this time, but that doesn’t make it any easier to watch.
• That said, Tracy’s deadpan reaction to a jet plane flyby — “Boys? Daddy’s home” — was more than amusing.
• What’s Up With Aleida? Good Question! In this episode, it’s maybe just a little bit more clear as to why we’re keeping up with Aleida and her father, Octavio — Octavio is now working as a janitor at the NASA offices, while Aleida is struggling to adapt to America. Her method of protest is an increasingly dangerous fixation on setting fires, which nearly spirals out of control before Octavio can get her to say what she really wants: “to be inside the fire.” When he takes her to see one of NASA’s rockets, telling her “maybe one day, Aleida, you’ll build a fire inside one of these,” the foreshadowing is quite potent.
• The news broadcast featuring Nixon is the first time the show has actually used doctored footage of him, as opposed to vintage photos overlaid with voiceover. So far, keeping him just on the edges of the story is working well.
• Oh, Margo gets a big promotion, becoming the first woman to work in Mission Control! During Margo’s interview with Gene, her reply when he tells her he’s seen “solid men piss their pants” doing the FiDo job — “I don’t wear pants” — is Éowyn of Rohan–level great. (Though maybe I’m just thinking that because there’s a bit of a resemblance between Wrenn Schmidt and Miranda Otto.)
• Want to feel depressed? Guess how many women have ever walked on the moon? The answer is ZERO. In fact, no woman has ever even orbited it. How Cosmonaut Anastasia changes the game for this reality going forward will likely be seismic.