I’VE watched Mick Rock’s 1972 video for David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ so many times I’m in my own tin can now, far above the world.
Bowie delivers the words straight to camera apart from the moment when Major Tom blasts into space when his arm lifts like a dancer’s. His hair is red and he’s wearing eye-shadow and platforms, visual cues which question Major Tom’s entire project — as do his sadly un-American teeth. But his delivery is deadpan. He leaves us to draw our own conclusions.
We tend to draw different ones. For me the story is a tragedy. Major Tom is an astronaut who dies a terrible death when he steps out of his tin can far above the world. He loves his wife very much but she will never see him again.
The horror is compounded by the fact that this is a scientifically planned experiment which tempts a man to risk his life for the sake of fame and glory. The most tell-tale line is surely, “The papers want to know what shirt you wear.”
Major Tom trusts his spaceship, just like the domineering computer is trusted in Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey which inspired the song. But Bowie’s song is much simpler and much more powerful than Kubrick’s film. He makes Tom an average geezer who loves his wife, a fragile human being in the hands of commercial forces he doesn’t understand.
I’m a child of punk and New Age and growing up I saw Bowie as a glam rocker. But when I started reading about the serious plans which are currently being made to send humans to Mars, ‘Space Oddity’ played over in my head until I put it on a loop on my computer.
Perhaps the most chilling of these plans is the commercially-funded Mars One in which the astronauts never return to Earth. I find it astonishing that this project can be calmly planned for 2025 when it would likely lead to the death of at least the first four astronauts as the world looks on.
An MIT-based experiment calculated that the first astronaut would suffocate within 68 days in the “habitations” which they would build because of the difficulty of maintaining the correct atmospheric conditions.
But even if the entire project went according to plan, the four would still be dead to the world from blast-off, present to their loved ones only as voices or images on the internet.
With ‘Space Oddity’ playing in the background I spent hours trawling through the video testimonies of the different candidates for the trip. There was the guy in the US who said he lived in a van anyway so the shuttle wouldn’t be anything new.
There was the woman who said the journey would be better than being stuck in traffic at home. But the scariest clip by far was the one presented by a woman as the last video home from a dying team which still thinks the sacrifice was worth it.
Freud said we can’t believe in our own death because we can only imagine it as if we witnessed it; science writer Oliver Morton says this is how death and Mars are alike.
Supporters of colonising Mars can’t really imagine living there and so they always picture it as a glorious event in the past recorded by the people of the future. “I want to be part of The History,” as one hopeful Mars One applicant says.
But the sacrifice of human life is never worth it, even if it goes down in The History. If the dead astronaut with the bejewelled skull in Bowie’s ‘Black Star’ video means anything it’s don’t worship death. In the words of UN secretary general Ban Ki Moon, “There is no Planet B.” All our effort should be focussed on cherishing human life on this small planet.
This is not really about space travel. The most high-profile proponent of life on Mars, Robert Zubrin, makes that very clear in his manifesto, “The Case for Mars.” Zubrin says Americans need a new frontier to conquer because America is losing the “vigour” which defined it.
He says we can never have peace on this planet unless we see the riches of the universe as unlimited because “Only in a universe of unlimited resources can all men be brothers”.
Tell that to the Aztecs. They didn’t experience much brotherhood in a world which seemed to have unlimited resources. But although Colombus’s conquest of the New World is the constant prototype for the conquest of Mars, the comparison is bonkers. Mars is, on average, 140m miles (225m kilometres) away, while Major Tom only travelled 100,000 miles. It is freezing.
Sand storms can last for weeks or months, sometimes enveloping the whole planet. That’s leaving aside the main issue: Mars has no air we can breathe.
The Mars lobby speaks of Mars as a possible alternative home for humanity if, as Richard Branson says, “something dreadful happens” to human life on Earth. The “something” which is mentioned rarely or not at all is climate change, probably because tackling it would limit the very kind of economic growth these guys espouse.
Global warming is rarely mentioned even in the context of terraforming Mars by releasing greenhouse gases on the planet to induce enough global warming to make it habitable. Happy families are pictured wandering through their Martian idyll with their oxygen masks on.
Is that where Bowie’s “girl with the mousey hair” pictured herself in ‘Life on Mars’? Human life on this planet may seem a “God-awful small affair” but it’s all we have.
‘Space Oddity’ came out the same year that man walked on the Moon. The pictures of the blue and green planet taken from the moon are traditionally credited with giving birth to the environmental movement.
But the writer Naomi Klein argues the opposite, seeing it as the moment we started to distance ourselves from the challenges of our home planet. And it was the “vigour” brought to the world economy by the space race which ushered in the era of capitalism which has come close to destroying our prospects on planet Earth.
Bowie’s is a voice raised for humanity against Planet B mentality. This planet is to be cherished and the stars are the mystery of the night sky. It doesn’t surprise me too much to find he had a spiritual life and to see his Muslim wife Iman Abdulmajid tweeting last week, “The struggle is real but so is God.”
And I applaud the 600-year-old church in Utrecht which played ‘Space Oddity’ on its bells.
Bowie was too much of an artist to make political speeches. But pass me my platforms and my blue eye-shadow because I’m voting with Mr Stardust for life on planet Earth.
Major Tom is an astronaut who dies a terrible death when he steps out of his tin can far above the world