Ground Control to Major Tom
Take your protein pills and put your helmet on
Commencing countdown, engines on (five, four, three)
Check ignition and may God’s love be with you
On July 20th, 1969, the Apollo 11 space mission brought the man to the surface of the moon for the first time, reaching a dream that lasted centuries and ending the space race between USSR and USA, with the United States declaring themselves winners. The event had an unprecedented media coverage and was followed by every television, which organized their own schedules to not miss a moment of the mission of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins.
BBC was among them, and during the long live session he chose the images a song released few days before (July 11th), which seemed to fit perfectly the occasion: Space Oddity. David Bowie wrote the song after being extremely fascinated by the vision of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which inspired him to tell the story of Major Tom (the first of a long list of The Chameleon Artist’s alter egos), an astronaut who interrupted the communication with the Earth and drifted in the infinite.
Bowie was always surprised about BBC decision: that song was basically talking about a failed space mission, and Bowie was joking about the fact that probably the tv managers had only read the title and nothing more. When they noticed, the misunderstanding, BBC’s high floors blocked the programming of Space Oddity until the US mission was finished.
At the same time, we may thing that there was a rational decision behing the release of that song almost in parallel with the landing on the moon, maybe forecating the media overexposure of one of the most important and significant moments of human history. Tony Visconti, which produced the album that contains Space Oddity, did a step backwards before recording and left it to Gus Dudgeon, arguing that he didn’t like the song and he considered it too commercial: the fact that, afterwards, only Major Tom’s song would become a hit out of the album will change the producer’s mind.
This is Major Tom to Ground Control
I’m stepping through the door
And I’m floating in a most peculiar way
And the stars look very different today
In 1980 Bowie published Ashes to Ashes, where he told that Major Tom had managed to get back in touch with Earth and was happy, while the Ground Control warned about his claims, stating that he’s just a junkie: someone considered it a reference to a younger Bowie and his fall in the spiral of drugs, after the success achieved with Space Oddity.
The influence of space and sci-fi on Bowie is clear also in other songs, like Hallo Spaceboy, Starman, Ziggy Stardust, Life on Mars, Lazarus, Dancing Out in Space and Born in a UFO, as well as in his parallel career as an actor in films like Labyrinth and The Man Who Fell To Earth; also his son Duncan Jones, who has evidently inherited his passion for science fiction, obtained his first success as director with Moon, the story of an astronaut ready to leave the moon after three years. Space Oddity was also protagonist in 2013 of the first music video made in space, when astronaut Chris Hadfield embraced the guitar and sang “Ground Control To Major Tom”.
Space Oddity brought a 22-years-old David Bowie to face fame for the first time and to win the collective imagination, thanks to the fragility of his alter ego: Major Tom, lost in his solitude and unable to overcome his alienation, surrendered but not desperate. And aware that there are things bigger than us, because…
Here am I floating ’round my tin can
Far above the moon
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do