In honor of the 40th anniversary of the moon landing, I’m looking at perhaps the best of the “astronaut songs” of the late ’60s and early ’70s, David Bowie’s still-haunting 1969 story of the luckless Major Tom.
A gentle acoustic guitar fades in, with those quiet but otherworldly “pings” as markers, and restrained military drums to remind us that Major Tom is a soldier under orders (who may not be on a peaceful mission). But still, the voice of Ground Control is a kind one, blessing the astronaut as the spacecraft lifts off.
Soon, joyous congratulations are coming from Ground Control after the successful launch. But — after a brief query from the tabloids — the order comes to leave the capsule “if you dare.”
Major Tom steps outside, and reports back that he’s “floating in a most peculiar way/And the stars look very different today.” But still, all seems well… Major Tom can even joke a bit about “sitting in a tin can,” and he is still in his right connection with the ship (or is he?). But with this new perspective, he’s beginning to sense his powerlessness: “Planet Earth is blue, and there’s nothing I can do….”
As Major Tom passes a hundred thousand miles out (!), he reassures Ground Control that he’s “feeling very skilled.” But then there’s the first hint that something is going wrong: “I think my spaceship knows which way go to.” Does the ship no longer need its pilot (shades of HAL)?
Major Tom’s last words to earth, are, of course: “Tell my wife I love her very much.” To which the compassionate voice at Ground Control replies, “She knows.”
Followed instantly by the unforgettable panicked transmission. Say it with me: “Ground Control to Major Tom/Your circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong/Can you hear me, Major Tom? Can you hear me, Major Tom?”
But poor Major Tom is now “floating ’round my tin can,” unable to get back inside, perhaps as the ship begins to sail away on its mission without him. “Planet earth is blue, and there’s nothing I can do….”
It really is an amazing record, isn’t it?
With thanks and blessings to all our American astronauts, past and present.