It is July 1969. In the US, Nasa is counting down the days until the launch of Apollo 11, the mission intended to land the first humans to set foot on the Moon.
Five days before the planned launch date, Florida’s Kennedy Space Center is a hive of activity; the rest of the world waits with anticipation.
Far away from the launch pads and the looming shape of the Saturn V rocket, London is in the grip of the tail-end of the Swinging Sixties. The Beatles are in a certain St John’s Wood studio, recording the album Abbey Road. The Rolling Stones have, only days before, played to a quarter of a million people at Hyde Park. And a fledgling singer-songwriter –with only one mildly successful album behind him, and almost unknown outside the UK – releases a song that taps in to the space-race fever that has been bubbling away to boiling point.
David Bowie’s Space Oddity took its inspiration from both fact and fiction. The race to the Moon had dominated news headlines since President John F Kennedy unveiled it in 1961. As the Apollo programme stepped up through the gears, Stanley Kubrick released 2001: A Space Odyssey, the thought-provoking science fiction epic based on Arthur C Clarke’s novel.
Bowie loved the film, and it was clearly a huge influence on the song he had written, and not just for its punning title. “I was out of my gourd anyway, I was very stoned when I went to see it, several times, and it was really a revelation to me,” said Bowie in a 2003 interview with Performing Songwriter. “It got the song flowing.”
Space Oddity was a dark and downbeat tale amid the industrial triumphalism of the Apollo programme. The consensus was that America’s technological might and will to succeed would prevail. But Space Oddity was not an ode to success. The song is a bleak tale of an astronaut – Major Tom – getting into difficulties on his mysterious mission to the stars. Ground Control can do nothing to save him as he spins into the inky darkness.
“Bowie was trying to say… amid all this fantastic stuff there are dark sides,” says Jason Heller, the author of the book Strange Stars, a book which explores pop music’s fascination with science fiction. “And that’s what a lot of science fiction writers were also doing at the same time.”
Apollo 11 was impossible to ignore – some commentators regard it as the first rolling news story, audiences tuning in again and again for the latest update.