Space Was the Place

Kitschy and slightly gimmicky, but cleverly crafted and carefully timed to ride the coattails of both the Apollo 11 moon landing and Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (and nodding as well at the psychedelic fads of the era), David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” was originally created to jump-start a seemingly stillborn career.

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield was recently filmed singing the song aboard the International Space Station (ISS),  during what was probably his last trip to space. Hadfield’s version of the song is poignant and sweet, sung against the shining backdrop of the planet he will soon return to, never to leave again. You can see in his eyes that he’ll miss it up there.

David Bowie never had very many poignant moments, at least not in a recording studio. So it’s strange that one of his most careerist and cynical musical efforts should be rendered so touching by being sung by a real astronaut on a real space mission. Hadfield does a good job of singing it, and the backing tracks are well-played, but the recording would not be quite good enough to garner our collective attention if it weren’t for the fact that he sang it in space, floating in the gravity-free confinement of a high-tech tin can with superbly good views out the window.

It seems like space is not so important to us anymore. I’m not sure why. When I was young, I dreamed of going to space. Many kids did. Back then, NASA was a very big deal, and the men who went to space were more than heroes: they were almost god-like. The screening process that ended with so very few being chosen was rigorous and exacting, and the men who soared out of Earth’s atmosphere were branded forever, known for the rest of their lives for their association with something special, audacious, and magical.

Becoming an astronaut still requires a staggering amount of discipline and determination. One is not surprised to find that one of Commander Hadfield’s crew mates aboard the ISS is a Navy Seal. That’s the sort of person we hurl into space. It’s just expected that these people are the brightest and hardiest of us all.

One has a difficult time imagining a man like Neil Armstrong singing a mournful pop song made famous by some decadent rock ‘n’ roll androgyne, much less recording himself in the act and then broadcasting it to everyone down on Earth.

David Bowie could never have been an astronaut. He was far too artsy and willful for that sort of thing. I bet he dreamed of it, though, when he was still young. He wrote a song about it, after all.

And Commander Hadfield could never have been a rock star. He doesn’t have that sort of charisma, nor does he have that sort of voice. Few of us do. But look at what he actually did do: he went to space in a rocket ship, several times. He looked out his window and gazed at our planet from hundreds of miles away. Not many of us alive today will ever do that.

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