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

By Jacob Shelton
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: (Discogs.com; 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.