Blog: MCA DNA

Hallo Spaceboy: A Scientist’s Reflection on Bowie

By Jeff Grube

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Earthrise, 1968 Photo © NASA

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With David Bowie Is closing on Sunday, January 4, we invited a scientist from the Adler Planetarium to share new insights and perspectives on the exhibition. Jeff Grube, a postdoctoral researcher at both the Adler and the University of Chicago, traces the influences and impact of Major Tom.

The space race and David Bowie are inextricably linked, even today.

In the exhibition David Bowie Is, a striking display featuring the first high-resolution photograph of the Earth as seen from the Moon’s orbit aboard the 1968 Apollo 8 mission draws the viewer in. This image is displayed alongside Bowie’s promotional material and sheet music from the breakthrough hit “Space Oddity.” In the song Bowie explores the isolation and uncertainty experienced by astronauts. Commenting on the inspiration for “Space Oddity,” Bowie explained: “here was the great blast American technological know-how shoving this guy into space, but once he gets there he’s not quite sure why he’s there.”

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Still of James Burke in Apollo 11 studio Photo © BBC

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Timed to coincide with the launch of Apollo 11, the popularity of “Space Oddity” skyrocketed when the song was used as background music during the British coverage of the moon landing. Yet, as Bowie pointed out, “I’m sure they [the BBC] really weren’t listening to the lyrics at all” considering Major Tom is stranded in space.

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Buzz Aldrin, 1969 Photo: Neil Armstrong © NASA

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Since that momentous giant step for mankind in 1969, “Space Oddity” remains an inspiration for scientists. This is best seen in astronaut Chris Hadfield’s excellent 2013 rendition of the song, filmed on his final day aboard the International Space Station. Hadfield used his time in space to reignite enthusiasm for space travel and his final offering—the first music video in space—captures the wonders of space exploration.

Bowie’s response via Twitter encapsulates the song’s many layers and continued relevance: “Hallo spaceboy . . .”