David Bowie: The Real Winner of the Space Race

David Bowie sitting in his tin can, 1969
Photo Credit
RB/Redferns

On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the moon - a perfectly legitimate reason to reflect on one of the most famous astronauts in the history of rock and roll: Major Tom, a.k.a. the subject of David Bowie’s breakthrough single, “Space Oddity.”

Produced by Gus Dudgeon and written by Bowie himself, “Space Oddity” was released five days before the launch of Apollo 11, making the tale of Major Tom a decidedly topical track at the time. The source of Bowie’s inspiration, however, was actually Stanley’s Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey, the last two words of which - just in case you never noticed this before - bear an in-no-way-coincidental similarity to the title of the song.

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Although it was undoubtedly helped up the charts by the constant barrage of news about the moon landing, “Space Oddity” wouldn’t continue to get the airplay that it does if it wasn’t a classic tune, and it’s clear that it is, since it’s actually among the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll. The character of Major Tom, meanwhile, is at least as iconic than the song in which he first appeared, given his subsequent appearance in other Bowie songs, including “Ashes to Ashes” and “Hallo Spaceboy.”

“Space Oddity” became Bowie’s first Top 5 single in the U.K. and earned him the 1970 Ivor Novello Special Award for Originality, but when it was reissued in 1975 - with Bowie now confirmed as one of rock's biggest acts - it climbed all the way to the top of the U.K. singles chart. While it wasn’t nearly as successful in the States because, well, that’s just how America tends to be, the song did make its way into the top 15 of the Billboard Hot 100, which is still pretty darned impressive for a singer/songwriter with as limited as presence as Bowie had at the time.

As you’ve seen via the various videos embedded within this piece, Bowie played “Space Oddity” in concert a number of times over the decades, resulting in a number of different interpretations of the song. When it comes right down to it, though, it’s hard to beat the original.

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