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Why David Bowie's 'Space Oddity' Was Released Ahead of Schedule

Why David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ Was Released Ahead of Schedule

In May 1961, President John F. Kennedy set an ambitious goal for America: send a human being to the moon and bring them back in one piece.

“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth,” he said during a joint session of Congress. The endeavor became known as Project Apollo.

Two and half years later, Kennedy would be dead, but the moon mission was hardly abandoned. After nearly eight years of testing, training, and myriad other preparations — not to mention tension with the Soviet Union — Apollo 11 was scheduled for launch on July 16, 1969. And if that wasn’t impressive enough, the landing itself would be televised for millions around the world to watch.

What did all of that have to do with David Bowie? At first, not much. A year prior to the scheduled moon landing, the rising singer-songwriter — who by then had just one album to his name, released to little fanfare — had gone to see Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The film followed a group of astronauts, scientists, and one remarkably sentient computer as they traveled to Jupiter on a mission to investigate alien life.

This, Bowie would later say, was enormously impactful, inspiring him to work on a new song titled “Space Oddity.”

“I was out of my gourd anyway, I was very stoned when I went to see it [Space Odyssey], several times, and it was really a revelation to me,” he said in 2003. “It got the song flowing.”

But when Bowie brought it to producer Tony Visconti, there were doubts. Visconti may have misunderstood the song’s intentions.

“When David played it to me, I said to him, ‘I know what you’re doing. There’s a guy up in space now. NASA just put a guy in space in his tin can. I know what you mean by the tin can,'” Visconti explained in 2023. “I said, ‘But it’s a cheap shot. It’s based on a special event.'”

Since Visconti wasn’t interested, Bowie instead worked with producer Gus Dudgeon, who would later work extensively with Elton John. Cheap shot or not, it was decided by the label that in order to maximize the song’s potential success, it should be rush-released as a single on July 11, 1969, five days before the launch of Apollo 11.

This turned out to be a fruitful decision. The BBC picked up the song and used it in their coverage of the landing, but only when the Apollo 11 mission was completed and all three astronauts, Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, were safely back on Earth.

“I’m sure they really weren’t listening to the lyric at all [Laughs]. It wasn’t a pleasant thing to juxtapose against a moon landing,” Bowie recalled in 2003. “Of course, I was overjoyed that they did. Obviously, some BBC official said, ‘Oh, right then, that space song, Major Tom, blah blah blah, that’ll be great.’ ‘Um, but he gets stranded in space, sir.’ Nobody had the heart to tell the producer that [Laughs].”

Needless to say, no one was left stranded. Four days after the launch, the astronauts had successfully landed on the moon, staying there for close to 24 hours — “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” as Armstrong said from the moon’s surface.

Even with the BBC’s delayed playing of the song, “Space Oddity” soon reached No. 5 in the U.K., Bowie’s very first chart hit. He would not have another for three years.