Three episodes in, the changes For All Mankind is making to the “real” timeline are becoming bigger and bigger in scope. As mentioned in the recap for episode two of this show, in our world the American space program (or any space program, really) never once sent a woman to the moon, even to orbit it. However, the end of “He Built the Saturn V” changed that when Cosmonaut Belacova became the first Russian woman — and the first woman, flat out — to arrive on the lunar surface.
As a result, in a scenario that might feel more than relatable to anyone who’s had to deal with the interference of upper management, President Nixon communicates to the folks at NASA that yes, creating a permanent lunar base (a.k.a. “Moonlab”) is the space program’s top priority. But now also a priority — as one man says, “a co-priority” — is to put a woman on the moon. “Preferably a blonde.”
The catch, of course, is that there are no female astronauts, which means that Deke has to train a new class of 20 women to hopefully find one capable of joining the program. Finding female pilots proves to be the first challenge: Molly and Patty, two veterans of Mercury 13 (a real, non-NASA-affiliated effort in the early 1960s to train female pilots as astronauts), quickly rise to the top of the pack, and a few other notable candidates come into the mix, including Danielle, a black engineer who already works at NASA as a “computer,” and the stubborn, reserved, and single Ellen.
Also joining the class is Tracy Stevens, who, it’s revealed in a flashback to 1961, was quite a pilot before she met and married Gordo. (Their meet-cute at the airfield, in which she fakes being an amateur pilot while he “trains” her, is in fact quite cute.) Tracy is actually a suggestion from the White House, as the other candidates don’t quite fit the All-American Woman image that Nixon’s hoping for, and the publicity aspect of her husband also being an astronaut is attractive. (Any objections Gordo might have had to her joining the program are smothered by Deke giving him a slot on Apollo 15.)
Of course, her fellow candidates know exactly why she’s here, and it’s not because she has the obvious skills and training. Still, politics keep her in the mix even as she rides the bottom spot at the class, and what began as a group of 20 slowly drops down to ten as the training continues.
“Nixon’s Women” plays a bit like a blend of The Right Stuff and A League of Their Own. This is not a complaint. While it’s pretty much just your straight-down-the-middle training narrative, with plenty of moments that feel familiar before they happen, it’s still satisfying to see underdog Tracy fight to prove that she deserves her place in the program, while hotshots Molly and Patty vie for first place.
The desert survival test plays out pretty predictably, with Molly discovering with frustration that Patty beat her to the end, while goodhearted Tracy, encountering an injured Ellen along her path, sacrifices her own potential success to help Ellen across the finish line. (It’s a trope seen many times — first example I thought of, to be honest, was the classic Shelley Long comedy Troop Beverly Hills.)
Afterwards, Deke tells Tracy that he’s impressed by her guts but that the next phase of the training is especially dangerous, and that she should drop out (which is probably his only option, since he’s getting plenty of pressure from upstairs to keep her in the program). However, she refuses, telling him that “I want this — I didn’t know how much until it was right in front of me, but I do now.”
With the number of female ASCANs down to five, it’s time for one of the most dangerous training exercises: piloting what amounts to a metal chair with a rocket attached 300 feet into the air. Ed warns the women that Neil Armstrong nearly died while training on this machine, and his ominous words prove fatal for one of them — though despite a fake-out where Gordo drives frantically to the base, assuming the worst, it’s not Tracy who fails. Instead, Patty, who had just taken the number one slot in the class, dies in an explosion, and the reality of what this journey could cost anyone and everyone involved becomes clear.
Houston, We Have Some Bullet Points
• Nate Corddry has an odd habit of popping up in small roles in dramas like these (see other recent examples including Fosse/Verdon, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and Mindhunter) but hopefully he returns as the movie-loving NASA scientist who clearly takes a shine to Ellen.
• As Molly, Sonya Walger is serving some real Calamity-Jane-but-sober-and-showered realness, and it is simply glorious. Walger, of course, might be most recognizable as Penny from Lost, and seems to be having a lot of fun playing a badass here.
• Joel Kinnaman is barely in this episode, as compared to earlier installments, but he’s both a good support player in his scenes and a surprisingly strong comedic foil when his wife Karen reacts to the news of a female astronaut program by angrily clearing away his dinner. The man just wants to eat, Karen!
• Karen’s resentment at women joining the space program and thus “making a mockery” of what Ed does feels very on point and authentic, given that someone she considers a close friend, in the same situation as she is, now has a chance to do something more. It’s a dynamic that the show hopefully continues to examine down the line.
• Were you impressed by how the For All Mankind production team was able to doctor an old episode of I Dream of Jeannie to make it seem like Barbara Eden was talking about lady astronauts? Well, be impressed the opposite way — instead it appears to be a clip from the 1968 episode “Operation: First Couple on the Moon” (clearly a rerun), a real episode in which Jeannie’s astronaut husband gets sent into space with Jeannie’s evil twin sister.
• The discovery of water on the surface means that the moon could be a refueling station for future expeditions. But something also hinted at in an early discussion about the MoonLab (which, yes, isn’t a great name), and made more explicit during a news broadcast overheard at one point, is the question of what, exactly, America plans to do with its potential lunar base. Meanwhile, Nixon says that the United States would not be the first country to put weapons in space — and, of course, Nixon would never lie. Right?