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Alternate Space. For All Mankind: Part 4

By Andy Cooke



Buzz Aldrin removing the passive seismometer from a compartment in the Lunar Lander, OTL.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.



This is part 4 of an in-depth look at For All Mankind. Parts 1, 2 and 3 can be found here.



The Eagle has... crashed?

Could Eagle really have crash landed?


So, in the world of For All Mankind, NASA grimly pushes on after having been beaten to the Lunar surface by Alexei Leonov; Apollo 11 is their chance to at least mitigate the pain of losing the Space Race.

Alexei Leonov, the first man to walk in space.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

America had lost out with the first satellite (partly because they’d not wanted to take the chance of politicising space). They only got their first satellite into space four months after the Soviet launch of Sputnik 1 (and after the Soviets had launched their second Sputnik, this one with a living creature on board – the unfortunate dog Laika). Their “throw weight” into space had still been a small fraction of that of the Soviet capability, as shown when the Russians launched Sputnik 3 (which had been intended to be the first satellite but whose construction had slipped). Whilst the American Explorer 1 had massed under 14kg, it was still in the same league as Sputnik 1’s 80+kg. More or less. Sputnik 2 had been an eye-watering 500kg (half a tonne when the American satellite was well within airplane baggage allowances), and Sputnik 3 was a shocking 1300kg. Large enough to carry a person.

A replica of Sputnik 3 in the K. E. Tsiolkovsky Museum of the History of Cosmonautics.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

America had been way behind.


They’d lost out with the first human in space – Yuri Gagarin in Vostok 1 had orbited the Earth on 12th April 1961, while Alan Shepard’s Mercury-Redstone 3 finally launched nearly a month afterwards – and that had just been a suborbital hop. Whilst the public saw them as pretty equivalent, NASA and the political leadership knew that they weren’t comparable. It wasn’t until the following year – February 1962 – that John Glenn finally orbited the Earth in a US spacecraft – Mercury-Atlas 6.


America had been way behind.


This time, though, they’d actually been ahead. Not only had they reached lunar orbit ahead of the Soviets, their programme was far more capable. Not that it gave them any public credit, but at least they could land within a few weeks of Leonov, and with two people on the surface.


But they had to get Apollo down on the surface as soon as they could. Failure was not really an option.


In OTL, failure had been an option – as long as it wasn’t fatal.


This differed from the way things had unfolded in OTL. NASA Administrator Thomas Paine had sat down with Armstrong and Aldrin and told them that if any issues arose, if they were worried about the landing at any point, they should not hesitate to abort the landing. He knew that the astronauts would tend to press on regardless and he wanted to ensure they would genuinely consider the option of erring on the side of safety. To underline this, he told them that if they did have to abort the landing, he would overrule anyone else in NASA to ensure that they flew the next attempt. It wasn’t one chance only. After all, there were two more launch windows remaining until the 1960s were finished: September and November. And all the hardware would be available in time to attempt those launch windows if necessary.


It was different in the show. Here it was made very clear indeed to Armstrong and Aldrin that if their mission failed, it would probably be the end for Apollo at NASA. The deadline wasn’t “the end of the decade” any more, it was “we missed it, they got there first, we have to show we were hard on their heels.”


The show launched the same crew as flew Apollo 11 in OTL. To be honest, I think that changing Armstrong and Aldrin would have broken suspension of disbelief for the audience, as they are so well known. It wouldn’t feel like an alternate history so much as an entirely different story.


The flight

We can assume Apollo 11 launched on the same day as in OTL and on the same mission profile. The launch window would have been the same (the Moon and geometry won’t have changed), and everything else seems very similar.


Everything looked to be unfolding the same way. Including that thanks to an unfortunately placed mascon (we now know that mascons are sublunar meteorite remnants, their density greater than the regolith around them), Eagle was accelerated in its course early on. It overflew target waypoints about two seconds early, indicating that its trajectory was landing them a bit long.


Remember that OTL’s Stafford and Cernan warned NASA that whilst the proposed Apollo 11 landing site was largely clear and level, there was a badly placed boulder field at the far end. Eagle’s descent path was placing them right into that boulder field.


In OTL, Armstrong took manual control and landed them even further downrange, pouring on the fuel to keep them off the ground for long enough to find a flat and boulder-free landing site. He took so long and used so much fuel that Mission Control were worried about them running out. The fuel gauge indicated only 17 seconds left (this was partly because the remnants of fuel were sloshing around the tank, but even with that taken into account, they were down to a mere 40 seconds).


Whilst the Lunar Module could abort the landing by cutting the descent stage engine, firing the guillotines to separate the stages, and igniting the ascent stage to get them back to lunar orbit, there was a danger zone. The astronauts called it the “dead man’s curve”. In the last 200 feet, there would be insufficient time for the abort sequence to elapse and the ascent stage to get enough momentum upwards to avoid disaster.

Map of OTL Apollo 11 landing site.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

But the abort system wasn’t needed, anyway. Armstrong set Eagle down safely on the Moon in a safe place.


Rocks and Rolls


In the show, though, we see that they don’t quite clear the boulder field. Perhaps their trajectory was just slightly less far downrange than Apollo 11’s in OTL. (It would only take a fraction of a second to put them into a bad place). Or perhaps the “go-fever” (remembering that they’d been told they had to succeed, that the entire programme rested on their landing successfully) had kicked in and they’d not noticed the developing situation until a little later (and lower) than in OTL.


Or perhaps they’d not received as good a briefing from Baldwin and Stevens as their counterparts received from Stafford and Cernan in OTL (too busy daydreaming about “reaching a hand down and scooping up some moondust”). Whatever the reason, Eagle was lower in the boulder field this time and with less fuel – or the ATL Armstrong panicked a little and went for the landing too soon, desperate not to be the man who killed off the Apollo programme.


And Mission Control lost contact with the lander just after everything looked to be suddenly going to hell.


They desperately tried to contact Eagle, but to no avail. Mike Collins, in the Command Module in orbit far overhead, could see through a telescope the speck of the LM in a boulder field. Still no communications.


The show correctly points out that the Eagle had very thin skin and a crash would have been disastrous. Even had they survived in suits, unless they could fire the ascent engine, they were doomed – no rescue was possible. All of this was true.


As the hours pass, we learn that Mike Collins is refusing to return alone. Here, I will claim implausibility: whilst we can empathise with the narrative choice, the real Collins would not have mutinied and insisted on suicide rather than return. In fact, Collins even referred to the prospect in his OTL autobiography and that he’d been obsessing about the possibility.


“My secret terror for the last six months has been leaving them on the Moon and returning to Earth alone; now I am within minutes of finding out the truth of the matter. If they fail to rise from the surface, or crash back into it, I am not going to commit suicide; I am coming home, forthwith, but I will be a marked man for life and I know it.”

Carrying the Fire, by Mike Collins.


Moreover, to refuse to return would be the greatest mutiny any astronaut could commit. He wouldn’t do it (and if he threatened it, he certainly wouldn’t have been given a future mission to command, as he was in the show: he’d have been pushed into a desk job for a diplomatic period before being pushed out completely).


Fortunately, though, just at that point, they regain contact.


Getting home

Eagle landed – or crash-landed – and made it through intact. Just about. We see a set of skid marks on the surface as the lander obviously had too much sideways momentum at the moment of touchdown and went sideways into a huge boulder, leaving it tilted at an angle. With some of the recent unmanned landings, we can conclude that they were very lucky not to tip over. (In February 2024, the IM-1 Odysseus lander fell over and, the month before, the Japanese SLIM lander ended up upside down). The width of the legs on the descent stage had to have been what saved them and left them merely tilted steeply.


Was it tilted too steeply to launch? Kranz worried that it was, that the fuel needed to right it on its ascent would preclude it reaching orbit. In the show, von Braun reassures him that it is achievable.


That, surprisingly, is one bit that leaps out to anyone deeply familiar with the Apollo programme. No, not that it could launch at an angle and make it to orbit (remember that it had a significant safety margin and merely needed to get into almost any orbit for Collins to be able to come down to get them). It was that von Braun was the expert reassuring them.


But we’ll get into that in more detail in the next article. Suffice it to say that the ascent stage could indeed launch successfully from quite an angle (although not without causing some held breath back home) and had sufficient delta-vee budget to right itself and make it into orbit. In the round, then – other than Collins’ “mutiny” in the show – what happened was plausible. Yes, they put a thumb on the scales to push things into the more dramatic direction, but we weren’t that far off of this unfolding in our timeline very similarly to how it did in the show.


I’m aware that we’re only just into the start of episode 2, and that everything (so far) is being assessed as reasonably plausible. We won’t be going so slowly through episodes in future (the deep dives are on things that are significant enough to make me want to discuss them rather than on episode reviews; these will cover more episodes at once as we progress, and we certainly won’t always end up seeing things as quite so plausible or close to reality.


But rewatching these episodes does bring it home just how much story they put into the opening episodes and how well they threw us into the middle of the unfolding action.





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Andy Cooke is a very prolific author. His books range from political punditry to ending the world. These include the series The End and Afterwards and The Fourth Lectern , which predicted the rise of UKIP on the British political scene. He has also written the portal fantasy series for young adults, The Shadowlands Chronicles [5], and Skyborn , a post-apocalypse story with airships.






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