Space Oddity: Bowie’s Send Up Is About More Than Being Lost In Space


Ground Control to Major Tom
Ground Control to Major Tom
Take your protein pills
and put your helmet on

Ground Control to Major Tom
Commencing countdown,
engines on
Check ignition
and may God’s love be with you

Ten, Nine, Eight, Seven, Six, Five, Four, Three, Two, One, Liftoff *

These opening lines from David Bowie’s Space Oddity were such a radical departure from the contemporary pop of its time. Contrast this to Honky Tonk Women (Rolling Stones) or Build Me Up, Buttercup (Foundations). The space race was in full swing when this was being written. The title is a transparent take-off on Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which had been continuously playing in New York for years. But the song is clearly about something else.

This is Ground Control
to Major Tom
You’ve really made the grade
And the papers want to know whose shirts you wear
Now it’s time to leave the capsule
if you dare

You can picture the astronaut, out there alone, cut off from the world floating beneath and away from him, separated not only by space but by his strange experience, uniquely disquieting because how many people can understand or imagine what he is thinking, feeling, going through at this moment, his fears, his anxieties… and that strange comment about his fame… “the papers want to know whose shirts you wear” as he ponders the meaning of his life.

I don’t always sleep well, with so much on my mind so much of the time. You have to wonder how these astronauts got any rest at all, wrapped in Mission Control outfits that can’t possibly have been as comfy as being in one’s underwear between sheets.

As with all great poetry, a rose is not a rose. And the capsule Major Tom is to emerge from is more than a capsule. He is leaving the security of what he knows for the uncertainty of the unknown; he is leaving the domain where he is in control. He is letting go.

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

For here
Am I sitting in a tin can
Far above the world
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do

Tom Wolfe’s bestseller The Right Stuff is one fat book, but it’s a fascinating read and a great picture of the audacity of the space program and these space cowboys who made it happen. Not everyone has what it takes.

There are many endeavors to which we are suited or unsuited based on our personal dispositions. Career choices, if at all possible, should not only dovetail with our interests but also our personalities. Some people have to be outdoors and find office space stifling. Some are more social, and others most comfortable in solitude. Some like being active, others prefer contemplative tasks.

Wolfe made it clear that The Right Stuff is more than physical toughness. There’s a mental facet involving courage, risk taking and steel nerves, among other things.

Wolfe’s book made them out to be America’s heroes, and on one level they really were heroic. But if you trace the aftermath of their space walks, moon walks, multiple cycles ‘round the globe, you find that they were mortals, just like you and I. They struggled with the basic needs we all struggle with, how to make peace with ourselves in a world that often fails to understand us. Learning to overcome the loneliness of our isolation and find peace within our solitude.

Here’s the culmination.

Though I’m past
one hundred thousand miles
I’m feeling very still
And I think my spaceship knows which way to go
Tell my wife I love her very much
she knows

Ground Control to Major Tom
Your circuit’s dead,
there’s something wrong
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you….

Here am I floating
round my tin can
Far above the Moon
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do.

Is it tragic, or beautiful? Thomas Wolfe (author of Look Homeward Angel, and not to be confused with Tom Wolfe above) once observed, “The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, peculiar to myself and to a few other solitary men, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence.”

Of this much more can be said. Have a thoughtful day. For those around you struggling with their isolation, reach out and share your ray of sunshine.

*Songwriter: David Bowie
Space Oddity lyrics © T.R.O. Inc.

Related Links

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An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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