Ground Control in Major Tom

The conflict between Ground Control and astronaut Major Tom from David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” is most beautifully portrayed by Bowie playing both roles himself in an excerpt from his 1969 promotional video “Love You Till Tuesday”:

From the very beginning, Major Tom is shown only through a circular pane – as if being observed from the perspective of the sentient computer HAL 9000 from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Here scenes from the movie are set to the 1983 re-telling of the Major-Tom-Story by Peter Schilling in German “Völlig losgelöst” (Better known in its English version “Major Tom (Coming Home)”):

In David Bowie’s video, even before taking off into space, Major Tom appears to be rather aloof and detached from the world. Unlike baseball-cap-wearing Ground Control, who at first seems a little envious, then excited and by the end is very concerned, Major Tom doesn’t show any emotions throughout his journey (just as astronauts Dave and Frank from 2001 appear to be unusually emotionless in contrast to the feeling-laden computer HAL).

When hearing the beginning of Space Oddity, I didn’t immediately think of Space Odyssey – instead it was the movie Billy Elliot that came to my mind, whose first song also opens with an intriguing oscillation between a major and a minor chord, creating a fleeting state of mind when fleeting between the worlds. The song by the band T.Rex addresses the movie’s topic of dancing; the only distant allusion to the movie 2001 in the lyrics may perhaps be to the final scene featuring the floating embryonic star child in the song’s lines “I dance myself right out the womb” and “What’s it like to be a loon – I liken it to a balloon”. A further connection between the song and Major Tom is the fact that the lead singer of T.Rex, Marc Bolan, knew David Bowie personally. Even though the connection between the two songs seemed so apparent, what fully convinced me was when I found out the title of T.Rex’s 1971 song – It is “Cosmic Dancer”:

While T.Rex’s Cosmic Dancer’s moves confidently between 4 chords (with a brief excursion to 3 more only towards the end), Major Tom’s eventful journey takes him through at least 15 different chords and a wealth of different musical structures and sounds (A slightly more detailed analysis is embedded in this excellent David Bowie song-by-song blog:

In the movie 2001, it remains unclear how it can happen that the “unfailable” HAL computer fails – just as the reason for Major Tom’s drifting off into space is not explained. Ground Control grounds his beliefs about the cut of contact with Major Tom in technology (“You’re circuits dead – there’s something wrong!”), while the video hints that Major Tom might actually be floating off into a new world with feminine “star beings” (analogous to the “star child” of 2001). Even as the star women take his “Major Tom”-adorned space suit, it is unclear whether this is happening voluntarily or not – after all, it is plausible that his weightlessness or generally the new environment of outer space may be restricting his possible scope of actions. Apart from technology and space women, a further reason for Major Tom’s detachment from earth may lie in the fact that he is frustrated with having to fumble around with his new space suit to find the label inside his back collar so that he can answer Ground Control’s question: “The papers want to know who’s shirts you wear”.

Major Tom himself notes “I’m floating in a most peculiar way – and the stars look very different today.” As you may remember from one of those especially relevant physics classes that you had to attend in high school, indeed the stars look different when viewed from outer space as opposed to from earth – they do not twinkle. The following 2007 recording of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” by the “children’s musical group” named “The Wiggles” not only reminds you that the twinkling of stars is a necessary prerequisite for earthly wondering about stars – which could explain why neither Major Tom nor Dave and Frank seem to wonder about anything. The following video also makes you wonder about the star-status that this Australian group enjoys with 10 million views (which is considerably more than the 2.5 million of David Bowie’s Space Oddity):

The lack of earthly atmosphere may not be the only reason that the stars look different to Major Tom. He also is surprised: “Though I’m past 100 000 miles, I’m feeling very still.” Thus, when conquering “Space – The final frontier”, he is not as excited as the speaker introducing the 1966 Star Trek series:

Perhaps the ultimate realization of Major Tom (as well as his counterparts Dave and Frank) is that outer space is the most suitable place in the world to completely dissociate from the world: “Planet Earth is blue / and there’s nothing I can do.” Venturing out into space is the ultimate form of “departure” available to man during his lifetime – nowhere else do you more completely say good-bye to all worldly things, and nowhere else is the uncertainty of what lies ahead of you greater. Every departure taking place on earth echoes a fraction of the mood evoked by space travel.

When on earth, meaning can always be attained by fighting planet earth’s blue mood (not its color). When in space, however, the meaning of meaning becomes more difficult, as the band “Miles” discovered in 1999 in their song: (I’m an) “Astronaut without a cause”:

For no matter where you are, the final frontier may not be in space – instead it may actually be within yourself.

This week, boldly go where no man has gone before,