This week in For All Mankind, Workplace Culture: A Continuing Study in Contrasts (and everything else that flows from it). How have NASA, Helios, and Roscosmos each approached the design, technical, mission, and human factors — each daunting in its own way and, taken all together, dizzyingly complex — in their grand competition to get to Mars? And what will those characteristics reveal (or what other characteristics will be revealed) as the three ships and their respective crews get farther and farther from Earth? How will they manage their resources? Their equipment? Themselves? Each other? These questions start as thought experiments but quickly become something far more profound and terrifying. This is my way of telling you that we’re going to get to the last big set piece with deliberate speed.
Events so far this season have been hammering away at the notion that the wildly profitable American space agency (to the tune of $75 billion in annual revenue!) is too stuffy, too set in its ways, too controlled by regulations and dweebie pencil-pushers™ (Ed and Molly). And the critics have a point. NASA is a vast federal agency, an organizational type not known for nimble maneuvers. But hold that thought for a moment while we pop over to Helios.
As this episode opens, the mood at Helios Mission Control is jubilant and brimming with confidence. Crowing just a bit as Ed confirms that their lead over NASA and the Soviets is insurmountable and Phoenix’s crew will reach the surface of Mars first by a comfortable margin, making their claim to the space-exploration prize money all but assured. Ed and Dani enjoy a bit of good-natured repartee — she very graciously lets him gloat just a tad about how innovation and out-of-the-box thinking will win every time — and they sign off.
The second they’re off inter-ship communications, though, the crew of Sojourner I leaps into action: After a bit of adorable “Arrr, me hearties”–type banter, Kelly fires up “Yo Ho! A Pirate’s Life For Me” on the ship’s speakers, and Dani confirms with Aleida that Operation Jolly Roger is a go and instructs the delightfully Scottish Mr. Halliday to hoist the mainsail to end all mainsails. It is gold lame. It forms enormous wings. It will capture enough of the sun’s photon radiation to let Sojourner — now resembling nothing so much as a groovy disco space moth — zip right past Phoenix and arrive on Mars a whopping eight days ahead of Ed and his crew.
Operation Jolly Roger ends the notion that NASA is now overrun by unimaginative and anti-innovation pocket-protector enthusiasts. (“How do ya like me now, Dev Ayesa?!” —Aleida Rosales, probably.) The operation’s flawless execution highlights how successful Dani has been at cultivating camaraderie and playfulness among her crew. It turns out you can have fun at the office while keeping your eye on the space … ball. (I was powerless to resist and regret nothing.)
Dev and his team have fallen for one of the classic blunders — mistaking the unusual and unlikely for the impossible. In a frenzy to regain the upper hand, Dev rattles off a bunch of potential tactics, but Bill Strausser puts his foot down, explaining that they’re all too risky. Karen Baldwin, who knows a thing or 12 about the reality of missions gone awry, tries to put this setback in perspective, pointing out that Phoenix’s crew will get to Mars regardless. Who cares if they’re not first? Dev cares, perhaps too much, as illustrated by his wee tantrum smashing a computer to the floor.
Helios, meanwhile, is a good home for NASA escapees like Ed, Danny, and Bill. It’s also a more freewheeling place — better suited than NASA to a highly competent, gentle oddball like Nick Corrado (barely recognizable at first, thanks to his beard). Plus, gourmet MREs and fresh produce grown on the ship using purified astronaut urine! All desirable features! But what undergirds the structure as a whole? Which safeguards protect everyone from the bad behavior and unfortunate choices of a particular crew member?
All of which is to say that we need to talk about Danny Stevens. Again. There’s just no way he should be cleared for any mission, much less a high-stakes long haul like this one. At least at NASA, where there are rules, his falling off the wagon had him grounded. Because Helios’s vetting process seems to amount to “if Karen isn’t available to exercise her good sense, Ed can just put whoever on the crew,” there he is, being unrelentingly cruel to Nick. Ed knows Danny’s temper is enough of an issue to merit more than one conversation about it but not enough to have had actual second thoughts about keeping him on the flight.
Meanwhile, NASA is showing itself to be an organization where leaders with similar yet distinct qualities — looking at you, Dani and Ed! — can thrive and do excellent work. There’s even room on Sojourner for character flourishes like Kelly launching outer space’s first pirate-radio station, playing an eclectic grab bag of tunes that take her fancy interspersed with requests from crewmembers over on Phoenix and Mars-94.
Speaking of which, we don’t know much about the Soviets and Roscosmos’s organizational culture. We see, in a brief snippet of a press conference, that Sergei is no longer the head of that agency; Lenara Catiche is now leading it. The opacity is by design, reflecting the intelligence wall between NASA and its Soviet counterpart and the TV-show reality; there are only so many minutes per episode, and the characters we care about most overall are not Soviet. For now, we only get glimpses of how things are working (or, as the case very quickly becomes, not working) in the Soviet spacecraft.
Our first hint that all is not well aboard the Soviet vessel comes from an urgent, surreptitious call on DJ Kelly’s private request frequency. A cosmonaut whispers that his colleagues “are about to do something very dangerous,” which turns out to be a wild understatement. It seems Roscosmos has ordered Mars-94’s commander to fire up their nuclear engines in an attempt to overtake both Phoenix and Sojourner. As everyone at both NASA and Helios helpfully expositions, this is a wildly risky gambit, as it could easily overheat the nuclear engines, which is exactly what happens. They’ve got 72 hours until everyone aboard dies of radiation poisoning, so it’s time for a rescue mission.
In this echo of the season premiere’s final act, the timeline here is less immediate, but the geopolitical and interplanetary stakes are much greater. If the other spacecraft were to leave Mars-94 behind, the avoidable loss of five souls would reverberate globally back home and quite possibly on the moon as well. After Ed and Dani talk it through, they agree that Phoenix will take on the rescue mission, even though they know it spells a return home rather than any Mars mission for the rescuers and the rescued. For all their competitiveness, Ed and Dani are both service-oriented deep in their bones, and it doesn’t occur to either of them that their parent agencies would disagree with switching to a rescue.
To preserve Helios’s chances of getting to Mars, Dev engineers the mood at an impromptu all-hands meeting to override Ed’s decision, but Ed chooses to ignore the order. Dev, however, has preemptively overridden Ed’s override. Remember when Ed convinced Dev to drop his control-freak dream of programming Phoenix to be self-driven? Guess who left the back door open just a crack, then embedded a software update to take control of the ship after all? But sure, Dev, tell us again that it was a group decision. You don’t need a lack of explicit hierarchy to manipulate a de facto hierarchy.
Ed and his crew put all their effort into hacking the software update to regain control of Phoenix, while Dani’s earnest, duty-driven pep talk gets her team onboard with the rescue mission right away. Their chorus of “Aye, aye, Skipper!” is as enthusiastic now as it was when they deployed their solar sails. When the chips are down, the crews of both ships are all in on doing the right thing.
However grouchy and resentful the Soviets are of having to be rescued by their American competitors (including a defector), Dani’s cool head is the best thing the cosmonauts have going for them. Her careful flying ensures that Sojourner is far enough away from Mars-94 that the ships are well clear of each other but close enough for the cosmonauts to (slowly) zip-line over to Sojourner. As the rescue continues, astronaut Sylvie is transmitting video footage of Mars-94’s liquid-hydrogen valves to NASA in the hope that they’ll figure out a way to siphon off some of the fuel, which would give Sojourner a shot at making it to Mars. Teamwork! Ingenuity!
There’s just one catch (of course there is): Unbeknownst to the crew, the nuclear meltdown aboard Mars-94 is worsening, causing one of the liquid-hydrogen tanks to spring a leak. Due to the five-minute communication lag from Earth to the ships, Aleida and Margo can’t do a thing but watch and wait in horror. It’s just as well that they don’t see what unfolds next. If it’s not too late for a content warning, this is the second-grisliest final scene we’ve seen on For All Mankind to date — as one cosmonaut is thrashed to death against the side of his own ship by a loose tether, Sylvie is crushed to death by Mars-94’s rolling collision with Sojourner, and another tether shatters Halliday’s helmet. Smash cut to black.
The rescue mission — both its success and its tragedy — highlights something crucial at the core of space travel. In space, as at sea, survival is only possible by through interdependence, knowing that the well-being of your fellow sailors takes precedence over mission parameters and goals. The crew of Phoenix understands this. Here’s hoping its Helios colleagues will too.
• While discussing the implications of Mars-94’s reckless nuclear-engine burn, Margo reveals a surprisingly detailed knowledge of the ship’s engines, and Aleida notices. A sad and adrift Jimmy Stevens seems to be falling in with a bunch of NASA conspiracy theorists. Let’s file away both of these tidbits for later.
• For the second time this season, we see Ed self-injecting something into a butt cheek. This is obviously going to be A Thing, but for now, it’s A Mystery Thing.
• One of the cosmonauts who is rescued successfully is the mission commander, played by Lev Gorn, a.k.a. KGB Rezident Arkady Ivanovich from The Americans. He joins fellow guest star Vera Cherny (as Roscosmos’s director), bringing the tally of Americans cast members to three so far. Dare we hope for a subtle onscreen reunion?