David bowie and the importance of space travel

Today the world awoke to the sad news of the passing of singer, songwriter, actor, painter, and all-around inspiration, David Bowie. As a woman in a highly technical, male-dominated field, I have always connected with his role as the patron saint for those who are deemed weird or sometimes made to feel that they don’t belong. The man merged the perspectives of science fiction and glam rock, evidence that two genres can always learn from each other, no matter how distant from one another they may lie on the cultural spectrum.

His message of “turn and face the strange” is also a familiar theme for those involved in scientific pursuits, where new results can be favored over traditional lore when current research leads us away from accepted truths.

Even more directly, however, the theme of science fiction, specifically space travel, was prominent in Bowie’s work.

His appreciation of the cosmos is honored by an asteroid with his name that orbits the Sun peacefully between Mars and Jupiter.  

Bowie’s first hit song, the career-making Space Oddity, reveals the loneliness of “Major Tom” who, despite having traveled “past one hundred thousand miles” feels “very still.

” The songs release coincided with the humanity’s first steps on solid ground off of our planet Earth when Apollo 11 brought NASA astronauts to the lunar Sea of Tranquility in 1969.

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded his own version of Space Oddity while aboard the International Space Station sitting in his own “tin can far above the world”. In the video you can watch him float after his guitar in microgravity before playing those famous chords.

Hadfield tweeted today, “Ashes to ashes, dust to stardust. Your brilliance inspired us all. Goodbye Starman.” British astronaut Tim Peake, currently aboard the ISS, also tweeted today to say that he was “saddened to hear David Bowie has lost his battle with cancer—his music was an inspiration to many.”

Bowie’s fifth album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, released in 1972, tells the story of an alien rock star come to Earth to comfort humanity in its last five years of existence. Ziggy Stardust was ranked the 35th best album of all time by Rolling Stone magazine.

How David Bowie created “Space Oddity,” the ultimate space anthem

When the 22-year-old David Bowie penned “Space Oddity,” a song that would ultimately become a recognized classic, he was a burgeoning pop artist without a record deal. A folk singer without a gig, a sometime mime, and a purveyor of ice creams. His first serious relationship, with the actress Hermione Farthingale, was in free fall.

It was December 1968, and Bowie’s manager Kenneth Pitt was collating a promotional film to pimp his client’s wares to London television and film producers. He requested Bowie pen a “special piece of new material” to contemporize the otherwise retrospective nature of the film.

And then, on Christmas Eve, astronaut Bill Anders captured his iconic photograph of Earth from the Apollo 8 spacecraft while circumnavigating the Moon.

Earthrise, 1968.

The Earthrise image was still resonating in the public’s imagination when Bowie retreated to his room in Clareville Grove, London to write his space cabaret. Composing on a 12-string Hagstrom guitar with a little sonic weirdness from a Stylophone given to him by Marc Bolan, he came up with “Space Oddity.”

A blatant commercial object, a “pragmatic” turn by a fledgling artist, the song would become an anthem for space exploration for decades (and for TV news obituaries on the occasion of Bowie’s death in 2016).

“Space Oddity” tells of an astronaut Major Tom, launched into space in a manner akin to the Apollo missions. Yet in this instance all does not go according to plan and he is left adrift in the abyss of space, “floating ‘round my tin can, far above the Moon.”

At the time it was considered a “novelty song” to hang alongside other opportunists riding the vapor trails of the Saturn V. (Omega watches, Tang, Space Food Sticks etc).

Bowie was acutely aware of the commercialization of the space exploration story, of course.

“You have really made the grade, and the papers want to know whose shirts you wear,” exalts ground control as Tom hurtles towards the heavens.

Eschewing the typical pop song template, Bowie designed the piece as if it was a dramatic play. “I think I wanted to write a new kind of musical,” he reflected in 2002, “and that’s how I saw my future at the time.”

The song—one of his earliest and perhaps most outrageous musical assemblages—is also indicative of the artist he would become, a restless creative magpie perched by the wireless, plucking phrases and vocal stylings from the inbound radio waves.

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The definitive version, recorded in late June 1969 at Trident Studios, was pressed and released as a single within three weeks—on July 11—to leverage the hype of the impending Apollo moon landing. It also sealed a new recording deal with Mercury Records. Bowie was back.

However, his long-time producing partner Tony Visconti refused to work on the song, citing it as a distasteful departure from the singer’s hippie folk leanings. Visconti’s unease led him to recommend Gus Dudgeon (who would later work with Elton John) as producer. The song’s adventurous orchestration and unsettling harmonics owe much to Dudgeon’s ambition.

Through resonance, tone, and unexpected harmonic shifts Bowie and Dudgeon achieved a meta-pop song full of cultural and musical references.

There are lyrical and tonal references to the Bee Gees’ “New York Mining Disaster 1941” while an acoustic passage signposts “Old Friends” by Simon & Garfunkel. Even the metallic chimes of the Stylophone recall the pulsating intro of the Beatles’ “I Am The Walrus.

” This was music for space, both inside and out, an experimental sonic palette that would open up a whole new genre of musical art direction.

Of course, Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey hangs heavily over proceedings. The two works are not only linked by name, but by their respective critiques of the cultural zeitgeist of “space fever.”

A sense of melancholia and detachment permeates Bowie’s recording. Yet, Major Tom’s predicament—floating in a tin can far above the world—is perhaps not the perilous event we might suspect. He seems quite okay with it all. Even his observation that there is “nothing I can do” comes across as somewhat of a relief.

We are never really sure whether the communication breakdown with ground control was accidental or by design. In Norman Mailer’s Apollo 11 chronicle Of a Fire on the Moon, he notes that the “obvious pleasure” of the astronaut, “was to be alone in the sky.”

Rushing towards the stars

Still, in a 1980 interview, Bowie revealed Major Tom’s dilemma was a comment on what he saw at the time as the limits of American exceptionalism:

Here we had the great blast of American technological know-how shoving this guy up into space, but once he gets there, he’s not quite sure why he’s there. And that’s where I left him.

For such a challenging work, the press reaction in Britain to “Space Oddity” was largely positive, Tony Palmer, writing in the Observer, appreciated the song’s cynical air at a time when “we cling pathetically to every moonman’s dribbling joke, when we admire unquestioningly the so-called achievement of our helmeted heroes.”

Music journalist Penny Valentine’s review for the ensuing album, which would feature “Space Oddity” as the lead track, observed that Bowie had captured “the rather frightening atmosphere we all live in as the backdrop to his songs.”

Music in space

NASA astronaut Catherine Coleman plays a flute aboard the International Space Station in 2011.

Music in space is music played in or broadcast from a spacecraft in outer space.[1][failed verification] According to the Smithsonian Institution, the first musical instruments played in outer space were an 8-note Hohner “Little Lady” harmonica and a handful of small bells carried by American astronauts Wally Schirra and Thomas P. Stafford aboard Gemini 6A.[2] Upon achieving a space rendezvous in Earth orbit with their sister ship Gemini 7 in December 1965, Schirra and Stafford played a rendition of “Jingle Bells” over the radio after jokingly claiming to have seen an unidentified flying object piloted by Santa Claus. The instruments had been smuggled on-board without NASA's knowledge, leading Mission Control director Elliot See to exclaim “You're too much” to Schirra after the song.[2] The harmonica was donated to the Smithsonian by Schirra in 1967, with his note that it “…plays quite well”.[3]

In the 1970s music tape cassettes were brought to the American space station Skylab,[4] while Soviet cosmonauts Aleksandr Laveikin and Yuri Romanenko brought a guitar to the space station Mir in 1987.

[1] Musical instruments must be checked for gases they may emit before being taken aboard the confined environment of a space station.

[5] As of 2003, instruments that have been aboard the International Space Station include a flute, a keyboard guitar, a saxophone, and a didgeridoo.[5]

Music in space has been a focal point of public relation events of various human spaceflight programs.[1] NASA astronaut Carl Walz played a rendition of the Elvis Presley song “Heartbreak Hotel” aboard the ISS in 2003 which was also recorded and transmitted to Earth.

[5] Canadian Space Agency astronaut Chris Hadfield, commander of Expedition 35 to the International Space Station, recorded a music video of the song “Space Oddity” by David Bowie aboard the space station. The first music video ever shot in space,[6] the video went viral and received widespread international media coverage after being posted to YouTube.

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[7] Bowie himself later called the cover “possibly the most poignant version of the song ever created”.[8]

Dongfanghong I

See also: Dong Fang Hong I

Dongfanghong I (simplified Chinese: 东方红一号; traditional Chinese: 東方紅一號; pinyin: Dōngfānghóng Yīhào; lit.

: 'The East is Red 1') was the People's Republic of China's first space satellite, launched successfully on 24 April 1970 as part of the PRC's Dongfanghong space satellite program.

The satellite carried a radio transmitter which broadcast the song of the same name, Dōngfānghóng or “The East Is Red”; the broadcast lasted for 20 days while in orbit.

Apollo 17

See also: Apollo 17

A few bars of “The Fountain in the Park” were sung on the Moon by NASA Astronauts Harrison Schmitt and Eugene Cernan on the 1972 Apollo 17 mission. Schmitt started by singing “I was strolling on the Moon one day…” when Cernan joined in.

Cernan kept with the original “merry month of May”, however, while Schmitt sang “December”, which was the actual date at the time. After a brief debate, Schmitt resumed, singing “When much to my surprise, a pair of bonny eyes…” until he could no longer remember the lyrics and began vocalizing the notes instead.[9] Moments later, Capsule Communicator Robert A.

Parker cut in from Houston, saying “sorry about that, guys, but today may be December.”[citation needed]

Voyager Golden Record

Main article: Contents of the Voyager Golden Record
The music is recorded in the circular grooves of this disc, which was attached to the spacecraft(s)

The Voyager program probes Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 were launched by NASA with a message aboard — a kind of time capsule, intended to communicate a story of the world of humans on Earth.[10]

This is a present from a small, distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours.

— President Jimmy Carter

The records feature spoken greetings in fifty-nine languages,[11][12] “sounds of Earth”,[13], and a 90-minute selection of music from many cultures, including Eastern and Western classics.[14]

Pink Floyd

On 21 November 1988, a cassette tape of Pink Floyd's live Delicate Sound of Thunder album (minus the cassette box, for weight reasons) was taken into space by the crew of the Soviet Soyuz TM-7 mission.

[15] The launch, at Baikonur Cosmodrome, was attended by the band's David Gilmour and Nick Mason, who made an audio recording of the event for potential use in a future project.[15] This was claimed by Gilmour to have been the first rock music recording in space.

[15] The tape was left on the Mir space station when the mission crew returned to Earth.[15]

Beagle 2 and Blur

In 2003 the British space organization's Beagle 2 probe was scheduled to play a song from the UK music band Blur, upon touchdown on the planet Mars.

[16] It was not known what happened to Beagle 2 for 11 years after landing, and it was considered lost.

When it was found intact in 2015, however, the possibility was raised that Beagle 2 had successfully played the song on Christmas Day in 2003 upon landing, but failed to transmit back to Earth.[17]

Curiosity rover and Reach for the Stars

Main article: Reach for the Stars (will.i.am song)

American recording artist will.i.

am wrote, produced, and recorded the song “Reach for the Stars”[18] (and their instrumental-driven version subtitled “Mars Edition” and “NASA Edition”[19]) in commemoration of the landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars.

The song was first released on August 28, 2012, and it became the first song that was successfully broadcast from another planet.[20]

Elon Musk's Tesla Roadster

“Starman” prop rocks out to Bowie en route to the Asteroid belt
Main article: Elon Musk's Tesla Roadster

Elon Musk's Tesla Roadster was launched into Earth orbit, then Solar orbit, in February 2018 as part of the Falcon Heavy Test Flight. The sound system on board the car was looping David Bowie's songs “Space Oddity” and “Life on Mars?”.[21]


  1. ^ a b c “Tuned in: music of the Soviet space programme”. sciencemuseum.org.uk. Retrieved November 4, 2016.
  2. ^ a b Edwards, Owen (2005). “The Day Two Astronauts Said They Saw a UFO Wearing a Red Suit”. Smithsonian Magazine. The Smithsonian Institution.

    Retrieved June 23, 2017.

  3. ^ “Harmonica, Gemini 6”. 20 March 2016.
  4. ^ “Archived copy”. Archived from the original on 2016-12-14. Retrieved 2016-11-13.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  5. ^ a b c “Space Station Music”. NASA Science News. NASA. September 4, 2003.

    Archived from the original on October 26, 2011.

  6. ^ Davis, Lauren (12 May 2013). “Chris Hadfield sings “Space Oddity” in the first music video in space”. Gawker Media. Retrieved 29 May 2013.
  7. ^ Knapp, Alex (13 May 2013). “Astronaut Chris Hadfield Sings David Bowie As He Departs The International Space Station”. Forbes.

    Retrieved 29 May 2013.

  8. ^ Andrew Griffin. “David Bowie: How Chris Hadfield's 'Space Oddity' cover from orbit was helped by the 'Starman'”. The Independent. Retrieved 2016-10-02.
  9. ^ Astronauts Strolling on Moon and Singing (Videotape). NASA. December 1972.

    Archived from the original on 2016-12-21. Retrieved 2018-05-02.

  10. ^ “Voyager – Golden Record”. NASAaccessdate= September 23, 2010.
  11. ^ Sagan, Carl (1994). Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space (1st ed.). New York: Random House. ISBN 9780679438410.

  12. ^ “Traveller's Tales [Carl Sagan Tribute Series, S01E16]”. Retrieved February 10, 2012.
  13. ^ “Voyager – Spacecraft – Golden Record – Sounds of Earth”. NASA. Retrieved August 17, 2008.
  14. ^ ozmarecords. “Voyager”. ozmarecords. Retrieved 2018-04-12.

  15. ^ a b c d Miles, Barry; Andy Mabbett (1994). Pink Floyd the visual documentary. London: Omnibus Press. ISBN 0711941092.
  16. ^ “Listen to the music that the Beagle 2 probably played on Mars in 2003 – The Verge”. theverge.com. Retrieved November 4, 2016.

  17. ^ Vincent, James (16 January 2015). “Listen to the music that the Beagle 2 probably played on Mars in 2003”.
  18. ^ Reach For the Stars by will.i.am, retrieved 2019-11-30
  19. ^ Reach for the Stars (Mars Edition) – Single by will.i.am, retrieved 2019-11-30
  20. ^ Karimi, Faith (August 29, 2012).

    “Will.i.am premieres song — from Mars”. CNN. Retrieved January 25, 2014.

  21. ^ “SpaceX Successfully Launches the Falcon Heavy—And Elon Musk's Roadster”. WIRED. Retrieved 7 February 2018.

See also

  • Space-themed music
  • Space music
  • Music2titan

David Bowie and the song that was heard in outer space

The Earth as seen from the Apollo 11 command module as it orbits the Moon before the landing of the lunar module.Credit:NASA

Space Oddity, David Bowie (1969)

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield was watched by millions when he did a cover of Space Oddity two years ago. Beautifully shot aboard the International Space Station, it was touted as the first music video shot in space and showed a singing Hadfield and his guitar floating about various parts of the ship.

It scored more than 25 million YouTube views, bringing the classic song to a whole new generation. It was, though, crucially different to David Bowie's original.

Hadfield's son – who persuaded his father to do the clip – rewrote the lyrics so that astronaut Major Tom not only survives but has a drama-free flight. The revised narrative swaps drama and danger for niceness. Major Tom doesn't have to bid his wife goodbye or die horribly from lack of oxygen.

Moon director Duncan Jones (right) with his lead actor, Sam Rockwell.

Hadfield could hardly have done otherwise, given his profession and the need to publicise the space program. In 1969, though, Bowie's original version with its aching lyrics was played as theme music during the BBC's live broadcast of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

There was Neil Armstrong taking heroic lunar steps while Earth audiences listened to Major Tom spinning off into nothingness, his expedition a failure. Astonishingly, Bowie's song about an astronaut who doesn't return to Earth served to promote the space race. Rush-released early, days before the moon-landing, it also launched Bowie's career.

“I'm sure they [the BBC] really weren't listening to the lyrics at all,” Bowie once told an interviewer. “It wasn't a pleasant thing to juxtapose against a moon landing. Of course, I was overjoyed that they did.

Obviously, some BBC official said, 'Oh, right then, that space song, Major Tom, blah blah blah, that'll be great'. 'Um, but he gets stranded in space, sir.' Nobody had the heart to tell the producer that.

Today, the new space race – led by private entrepreneurs such as millionaire Elon Musk's SpaceX and Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic – is gathering momentum. People are excited at the prospect of humans on Mars, seeing sleek spacecraft and hearing about plans to terraform the red planet. It's all so theatrical.

Back in 1969, though, Space Oddity grabbed the collective imagination about the heavens in a much more visceral way. As a space opera, Oddity had risk, courage and danger at its core. It was a human story.

University of Melbourne academic Tyne Daile Sumner says that during a visit to the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC last year, she noticed how other visitors were enthralled by the spectacle of seeing real spacecraft such as the Discovery. They loved, she says, being in its presence; they were much less interested in investigating the science or technology behind its creation.

“For a lot of people, the space race wasn't about the political war [between the US and the USSR] but about being entertained by it,” she says. “It was about the theatre of space.”

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