Ground Control To Major Tom: David Bowie's 'Space Oddity,' Explained

By | May 9, 2019

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Left: Cover art for 'Space Oddity,' the 1972 re-titled re-release of David Bowie's eponymous 1969 album. Right: a still from '2001: A Space Odyssey' (1968). Sources: (; IMDB)

"Ground control to Major Tom..."

David Bowie's 1969 single "Space Oddity" has a more memorable opening line than its actual title (which appears nowhere in the lyrics), and it offers fairly harrowing science-fiction -- for Major Tom, the mission does not end well. Major Tom is one of many characters Bowie created (others being Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke, and the Blind Prophet), although Tom doesn't seem to have been an alter ego -- well, not until a decade later, when Tom returned in "Ashes To Ashes." The question of "Who is Major Tom?" may not be answerable, but there's a lot to learn about his origins -- in effect, "Why is Major Tom?"

Released as a 7-inch single on July 11, 1969, a mere five days before the Apollo 11 launch date, David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” told the story of Major Tom, an astronaut who finds himself floating through space and questioning his role in human existence. Even though the song got off to a slow start, the track reached #5 in the UK and -- three years later -- #15 in the US.

While pretty much every fan of David Bowie is aware that the song is called “Space Oddity,” the song is in many ways bigger than Bowie, and there are still a few people out there who know it as “Major Tom.” The song has inspired copycats, strange rumors, and most of all, a fascination with this fictional character. 

"Ground control to Major Tom…”

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From the opening moments of “Space Oddity,” Bowie introduces the audience to Major Tom through his instructions from Ground Control. By the second verse, Tom has made it to space and he’s describing his time in space as he floats “in a tin can far above the world.” Listeners were fascinated by the idea of Major Tom, even going so far as to ask if he was a real person.

As far we can tell there was a never a Major Tom who went to space, but Bowie paints such a realistic portrait that it’s hard to believe he only exists in our imagination. Major Tom is married, he feels the stress of a job, and he’s not concerned with answering a question about who made the shirt he wears. This last phrase, by the way, might not be a request for a clothing endorsement, as it sounds to Americans. Asking to know "whose shirt you wear" may be a slangy British way of inquiring which football (soccer) team Tom supports.