David Bowie’s iconic hit, “Space Oddity,” turned 50 on July 11. The famous tune was released just five days ahead of what is now the historic Apollo 11 mission to the moon, which saw American astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin take that “giant leap for mankind” and go for a walk.
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of NASA’s Apollo 11 launch (July 16), here are a few songs that definitely remind us to keep “reaching for the stars.”
‘Ground Control to Major Tom’
Rock fans and space enthusiasts alike won’t soon forget the late, legendary British rocker’s breakout song. An avid space fan since childhood, Bowie penned the track after watching Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
The song tells the story of a fictional astronaut, “Major Tom.” He boards a rocket and blasts off, only to lose communication with Earth and float away into space.
Bowie immediately hooks his listeners with “Space Oddity’s” nearly hypnotic opening line: “Ground control to Major Tom.” He sings the greeting twice. Then he paints a vivid lyrical picture of space traveler Tom, as he prepares to blast off. He puts on his helmet, and the spoken countdown begins in the first verse as “10, nine, eight, seven, six,” and so on.
Many fans brand Bowie’s interstellar contemplation as a creative masterpiece. Melodically, the song conjures an ethereal, spacey feel.
The song remains one of the beloved glam rocker’s signature songs. Public excitement about the first successful trek of human space boots on the surface of the moon undoubtedly helped generate buzz for the record.
As such, it claimed several accolades. Its initial release marked Bowie’s first song to hit the U.K. Singles chart, where it peaked at No. 5 in 1969. It also won the Ivor Novello Special Award for Originality in 1970.
In 1972, Mercury Records re-released it as the title track to Bowie’s renamed second studio album (which was initially self-titled). Moreover, the song topped the U.K. Singles chart in 1975. The track eventually landed on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s list of “The Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.”
The BBC even played “Space Oddity” during broadcast footage of NASA’s lunar landing. Thankfully, the moon mission was a success. In contrast, Major Tom lyrically floats away in his “tin can” through space.
Multiple generations have embraced this iconic space anthem. For example, in 2013, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield sang it as the first music video filmed in space from inside the International Space Station (ISS).
Special Edition Reissue
Upon its 50th anniversary, Parlophone released an exclusive double 7-inch single in a box set featuring new remixes by Tom Visconti, as well as a double-sided poster. The visual keepsake features an original “Space Oddity” press advertisement on one side. A photo that Ray Stevenson took of Bowie performing at the 1969 Save Rave concert at the London Palladium is on the other side.
The live show image boasts a photo backdrop of a NASA astronaut, which is displayed behind the “Life on Mars?” singer as he plays guitar.
Mattel also released a special Barbie doll styled as Bowie’s famous alter-ego, Ziggy Stardust, to pay tribute to the song and the beloved superstar. The doll retails for $50.
Major Tom Reappears and more Bowie Space Tracks
“Space Oddity’s” fictional astronaut, Major Tom, reappears in some of Bowie’s future recordings. For instance, he is referenced in the 1980 single “Ashes to Ashes” and the Pet Shop Boys remix version of “Hallo Spaceboy.” Though not directly confirmed, some critics believe the dead astronaut in Bowie’s “Blackstar” music video is Major Tom.
Bowie also released several more songs with interstellar themes including “Starman” (1972), “Life on Mars?” (1973), “Dancing Out in Space” (2013), and his last album before his death, Blackstar (2016). He won four posthumous Grammy Awards, including Best Alternative Music Album and Best Rock Song (for the title track) on his acclaimed final project.
More Notable Songs about Space
“Space Oddity” and Bowie’s other space-themed offerings are arguably some of the most revered tunes about the intergalactic region above Earth. However, dozens of other artists have released songs about the vastly unexplored frontier over the years. Here’s a look at five of them.
“Fly Me to the Moon” – Frank Sinatra (1964)
Bart Howard originally wrote this song in 1954 and titled it “In Other Words.” Kaye Ballard recorded the first version of it that same year. Frank Sinatra’s version played while the Apollo 10 mission orbited the moon in May of 1969. Two months later, Buzz Aldrin played the song on cassette tape as he stepped onto the moon’s surface.
“Across the Universe” – The Beatles (1970)
Credited to the songwriting team of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, this track appeared on the 1969 charity compilation record No One’s Gonna Change Our World. The group re-released it on their final Let it Be album in 1970. The song is one of the band’s best psychedelic renditions, with multiple lyrical references to the universe and the sun.
“Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going to Be a Long, Long Time)”– Elton John (1972)
Elton John and Bernie Taupin co-wrote this U.K. and U.S. Top 10 track, which hails from John’s fifth studio album, Honky Château. The song’s story is similar to “Space Oddity.” However, John’s hit single traces an astronaut’s journey to Mars instead of the moon. The soaring synth sounds seem to emulate the rush of blast off.
The track made Rolling Stone’s ranking of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time in 2004 and 2011.
The song inspired the 2019 musical biopic film of the same name.
“Walking on the Moon” – The Police (1979)
Written by The Police’s lead vocalist, Sting, “Walking on the Moon” boasts a fun, reggae feel. It marks the band’s second U.K. No. 1 single and hails from their 1979 album, Regatta de Blanc. Moreover, the track’s music video is set at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Band members perform the song along with cuts of NASA footage, and drummer Stewart Copeland even hits his drumsticks on a Saturn V rocket.
“NASA” – Ariana Grande (2019)
Pop superstar Ariana Grande is a self-professed space fan. So much so, that she donned a spacesuit during a recent visit to Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas after performing at a sold-out live show. The Florida native songstress co-wrote her track, “NASA,” which hails from her Grammy-winning album, thank u, next. Her fellow writers include Victoria Monet, Tayla Parx, Tommy Brown, and Charles Anderson.
The song is named after the famous government space agency. Its intro features a twist on Neil Armstrong’s famous moon landing declaration. Entertainer Shangela says, “One small step for woman, one giant leap for womankind.
Who knows what tunes the next crop of astronauts will play as they blast off on the upcoming Artemis mission, which aims to land the first woman and next man on the moon by 2024?