“Space Oddity” and Other Oddities: Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Moonwalk

This July will mark the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing, when a transfixed world watched American astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin become the first people to walk on the moon—that we know of.

To celebrate, we’re offering up this brief and non-comprehensive round-up of some interesting pop culture bits and pieces related to that “giant leap for mankind.”

David Bowie’s song “Space Oddity” was released on July 11, 1969, just five days before the Apollo 11 launch. It was his record label’s idea to rush the single out to coincide with the buzz around the American space mission, but Bowie’s actual inspiration for writing the song was Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. (Odyssey…oddity; get it?)

In the song, which appeared on Bowie’s self-titled second album, we meet the astronaut Major Tom, who goes to space, becomes a celebrity, experiences the awe of looking at earth and ultimately gets stranded on a space walk, floating ‘round his tin can while losing contact with ground control. The dark ambivalence of the song—is it celebrating the space race or criticizing it?—was evidently lost on the BBC, which used the record in its live Apollo 11 coverage.

The tune became one of Bowie’s best known, and Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield even performed it on the International Space Station in 2013. Bowie approved of Hadfield’s rendition, calling it “possibly the most poignant version of the song ever created.”

Commercial break: Check out this original and highly collectible 1969 David Bowie LP for sale in our Tyler, TX HPB store.

There was nothing ambivalent about Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon,” a spoken word track that appeared on Scott-Heron’s 1970 debut album, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox. In the brief recording, which features Scott-Heron’s voice over a drum beat, the influential poet-musician muses on the disparity between two Americas: the America that spends billions sending men to the moon and the America of the poverty-stricken inner cities. Scott-Heron recites: “A rat done bit my sister Nell / with whitey on the moon. / I can’t pay no doctor bill / but whitey’s on the moon.”

Scott-Heron’s view may seem radical today, but during the turbulent 1960s, public opinion polls showed that 45 to 60% of Americans thought the country was spending too much money on the space program. In 1967, none other than Martin Luther King, Jr., said: “If our nation can spend $35 billion a year to fight an unjust, evil war in Vietnam and $20 billion to put a man on the moon, it can spend billions of dollars to put God’s children on their two feet right here on earth.”

On a lighter note, footage of the moonwalk was central to another important launch 13 years later: the debut of MTV in August of 1981. The fledgling cable channel famously used NASA footage and doctored it to show an astronaut planting a flag emblazoned with the MTV logo. The network’s creative director, Fred Sieber, later said, “We had this idea of copying the biggest TV event in world history—the man walking on the moon—usurp it to ourselves, the juvenile delinquents of MTV.” A version of this clip ran on MTV at the top of every hour for the first few years of the channel’s existence, and an astronaut figure was adopted as the trophy for MTV’s Video Music Awards.

One thing that’s not related to the actual moonwalk (but we’ll discuss it anyway!) is the moonwalk dance move. Although the moonwalk is associated with Michael Jackson, it has actually been around for decades, and people who did it (or versions of it) before Jackson include Cab Calloway, Judy Garland, James Brown and Dick Van Dyke. But Jackson made it his own in 1983 when he deployed it in his dazzling performance of “Billie Jean” on the Motown 25 TV special.

The move had been known by various names, including “the backslide,” but MJ is credited with re-dubbing it the moonwalk. Maybe Jackson got the idea for the name from H.R. Pufnstuf. In an episode of the trippy kids’ show that aired in November of 1969—just a few months after the moon landing—Judy the Frog leads the cast in a dance number called “the moon walk.” Check it out at 10:50 in this video:

Even Gil Scott-Heron couldn’t have imagined lyrics like “Leave the world behind and take a powder / but take along a bowl of mama’s chowder.” Makes you wonder what kind of stuff they were puffin’ back in ’69.

Happy Apollo 11 anniversary, everybody.

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