In Space No One Can Hear You Sing

The kindergarten era of space mobility came to an end when man himself orbited the earth in 1961. Within a month after the first orbital space flight by the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gargarin in Vostok I on April 12, 1961, the American decision had largely been made to land a man on the moon within the decade of the 1960's. On May 25, 1961, President Kennedy presented this "opportunity" for national decision in a stirring presentation to the Congress and the American people. He viewed space achievement as a contest which the United States could win in open competition.1


You've really made the grade
And the papers want to know
whose shirts you wear...

Before the "Thin White Duke" and "Ziggy Stardust," just two of the many roles David Bowie wore on his way to making scores of hit recordings, there was the one of Major Tom. (This American even predated the time when he was one of "the Young Americans") This spacey character introduced in 1968 "Space Oddity" and re-released in 1972 was brought back under the spotlight again in 1980 when Major Tom was resurrected for the song, "Ashes to Ashes" for his LP release, Scary Monsters. Later on Bowie's album, Rare he did an Italian version, "Ragazza Sola, Ragazza Solo."

Inspiration to Perspiration

I'm a Space Cowboy,
I bet you weren't ready for that...

--Steve Miller

One source claims that the Apollo 8 mission was the catalyst for writing this song, but the title gives the reality away. Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece of cinema had come out in 1968, based on the book by Arthur C. Clarke, 2001: A Space Odyssey. The program at that time highlighted space walks by the United States astronauts as seen on television and premiered by Edward H. White for 20 minutes on June 3, 1965. Visions of a man floating tethered 25 feet from his ship are echoed in this song:

Now it's time to leave the capsule if you dare...

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
Apollo 8 was a mission to travel 384,000 miles to the moon and return for Christmas of 1968, and its timing boosted with a lot of help by David's manager, Ken Pitt the importance of Bowie's release of "Space Oddity." How quickly the program accelerated as by the next year Apollo 11 went to the moon and Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong made that "One small step for a man, and one giant leap for mankind." The U.S. had won the 'Space Race.' Since then we've grown jaded with Space Shuttle flights, and maybe a little more than yawn when talk is bantered about manned missions to Mars. Science Fiction and Real Life have sort of merged; except where are those anti-gravity cars? Meanwhile the hip youngsters were getting more and more 'spaced.'

This navigating escape velocity, and re-entry was only possible with the help of computers and engineering staff. Indeed we learn that his "...spaceship knows which way to go...," and "...there's nothing I can do." More realistic and less ominous than HAL (the insane AI in 2001 not opening the pod bay doors. He adds a human touch that echoes the familiar shots of space jockeys waving to their families, when he leaves the message while he's more than a hundred thousand miles away, "Tell my wife I love her very much." The authorities just want to get on with the mission, responding curtly, "She knows!" A baby boomer might remember, "Houston, we have liftoff," and "Houston, we've had a problem," Major Tom also has his ground control, too. An allusion is made here, too of the high tech food, i.e. Tang, and the goop on Kubrick's Space Station:

Ground Control to Major Tom
Take your protein pills
and put your helmet on....
And this is made more cogent on the cut by Bowie's spoken interjection after Ground Control turns on the engines and then curiously wants to check ignition before wishing "May God's love be with you.":
Ten, Nine, Eight,
Seven, Six, Five, Four,
Three, Two, One, Liftoff

Interestingly, scientific authenticity is sometimes evident in the song in spite of the 'can' would have more titanium than tin, but artistic license is at work here, not rocket science after all. Once gravity has been beaten, the feeling of movement, even if traveling many hundreds of miles per hour, would be non-existent as he observes that "I'm feeling very still." Also significant is the two-sided sword of technology, when it fails, "...there's nothing I can do...," either, and indeed Ground Control admits,

Your circuit's dead,
there's something wrong
Can you hear me,
Major Tom?
He can't, and they can't hear him as he repeats the chorus that now takes on a more sad and ominous meaning:
Here am I
floating round my tin can
Far above the Moon
Planet Earth is blue
And there's nothing I can do...
Some have hinted that Bowie's experimentation with Heroin at this time is the 'horse' he was riding in this song symbolically. Okay, and the Byrds insisted that "Eight Miles High" was about flying on an airplane, yeah right.


Before there were Roland and Casio portable keyboards, or PalmPilots and PDA's, in 1968 Rolf Harris was pushing an affordable one, the miniature Stylophone. Marc Bolan of T Rex, who was immortalized in his friend Bowie's song done by Mott the Hoople, "All the Young Dudes" gave David one of these new pocket wonders. This is probably one of the first hits written on the latest space-age technology. Listen as slide guitar, played by Mick Wayne, is tremolo laden, bass lines by Herbie Flowers accentuate the low end before Bowie kicks in with his distinctive whiny voice. The Mellotron synthetic keyboard of Rick Wakeman (of Yes fame) gave just the right feel throughout. But, Paul Buckmaster's string accompaniment were the perfect touch to the introspective choruses. Ironically, producer Tony Visconti thought the song was too commercial. But, predating Elton John's "Rocket Man" by years that same producer, Gus Dudgeon took this project to studio.

Missile Hit

The song was debuted at a Rolling Stones' Hyde Park concert, and it made it to UK's number five. It did make it to number 15 in the States, in spite of being stymied with its negative look at astronauts, and upon its re-release in 1975 it was at the top of the English charts. In 1980 Major Tom in Ashes to Ashes* was The Man Who Fell to Earth as this movie starring him proclaimed.

Artist as Prophet

Renaissance artists painted in that new aesthetic utilizing the technique of perspective capturing more realistically the latest advances in architecture their scientists were developing. Even more far-reaching looks-ahead were glimpsed by Leonardo DaVinci; now we have this first more naturalistic space age lyrical hit (one could not possibly count Sheb Wooley's "Purple People Eater" of a few years earlier) {see notes below}, additionally with Bowie maybe unknowingly looking ahead to some of the fatal disasters that were awaiting in the future. Perhaps, like 2001's Dave, Bowie wants to transcend spiritually along with Major Tom floating out into the Cosmos.

Historically, as man has steadily conquered and understood his environment, he has made intellectual and material progress in civilization. Thus, there are valid reasons for believing that the exploration and exploitation of space is one of man's greatest scientific and dramatic adventures. We can only guess at the sequence or timing of specific events.

In this age of science in which we live, the capabilities of space flight have already provided us with the ability to perform feats which primitive man only granted to the greatest gods in his limited universe. The universal complexities of nature, not just earth-bound data, become increasingly known, but the supreme design we cannot yet know or fully understand, as we are only now beginning to piece together the cosmic jigsaw puzzle. This challenge should define one of the greatest chapters in the history of mankind.

1 Technology in Western Civilization (Vol II), eds. Melvin Kranzberg, Carrol W. Pursell, Jr. New York: Oxford, (1967) p.683.
2 ibid, p. 686.

Technology in Western Civilization (Vol II), eds. Melvin Kranzberg, Carrol W. Pursell, Jr. New York: Oxford, 1967.
Heatley, Michael, Spencer Leigh, Behind the Song: The Stories of 100 Great Pop and Rock Classics, London: Blandford, 1998.
McEvedy, Colin, The World History Factfinder, New York: Gallery, 1984.
100 Hit Lyrics, Gurol Canbeck (online).

Ashley Pomeroy says: And of course don't forget 'Telstar' by the Tornadoes, from 1962. They were a British group who had a US number one a few years before the 'British Invasion'. It was instrumental, but inspired by the communications satellite. And for that matter Joe Meek's classic, cult 'I Hear a New World', a sci-fi concept album from 1960.

Author's note: I would add, in the States Joe Meeks was not a chart-topper, and "Telestar" does not contain lyrics, so is perhaps harder to explicate.
Gorgonzola says: It catapulted Bowie into fame from being 'a guy who 'had a weird way of sounding like Anthony Newley'. David Bowie's song was played during the BBC's broadcast of the 1969 moon landing.
spiregrain says: re Space Oddity -- this might be of interest. S.O. is to be played during the weightless portion of the SpaceShipOne commercial passenger flights - space_oddity/
Author's Note: Before this album release with the same name, Space Oddity (but, most have probably heard the song on one of several compilations), Bowie was an Anthony Newley protogé.

*Note: (I posted it the day after Bowie's passing January 10, 2016) Major Tom was a junkie according to "Ashes to Ashes:"
Ashes to ash and fun to funky
We know Major Tom's a junkie,
Strung out in heaven, his high
Hitting an all-time low.

For the E2 Quests: Songs and Lyrics

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