David Bowie and the Importance of Space Travel

The theme of space travel was prominent throughout Bowie's music. In honor of the inspirational musician's career, let's explore the connection between science fiction, the pursuit of the unknown, and knowledge of our place in the cosmos, as well as how it inspires future space travel.

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #176

Today the world awoke to the sad news of the passing of singer, songwriter, actor, painter, and all-around inspiration, David Bowie. As a woman in a highly technical, male-dominated field, I have always connected with his role as the patron saint for those who are deemed weird or sometimes made to feel that they don’t belong. The man merged the perspectives of science fiction and glam rock, evidence that two genres can always learn from each other, no matter how distant from one another they may lie on the cultural spectrum.

His message of “turn and face the strange” is also a familiar theme for those involved in scientific pursuits, where new results can be favored over traditional lore when current research leads us away from accepted truths. Even more directly, however, the theme of science fiction, specifically space travel, was prominent in Bowie’s work. His appreciation of the cosmos is honored by an asteroid with his name that orbits the Sun peacefully between Mars and Jupiter.  

Bowie’s first hit song, the career-making Space Oddity, reveals the loneliness of “Major Tom” who, despite having traveled “past one hundred thousand miles” feels “very still.” The songs release coincided with the humanity’s first steps on solid ground off of our planet Earth when Apollo 11 brought NASA astronauts to the lunar Sea of Tranquility in 1969. Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded his own version of Space Oddity while aboard the International Space Station sitting in his own “tin can far above the world”. In the video you can watch him float after his guitar in microgravity before playing those famous chords.

Hadfield tweeted today, “Ashes to ashes, dust to stardust. Your brilliance inspired us all. Goodbye Starman.” British astronaut Tim Peake, currently aboard the ISS, also tweeted today to say that he was “saddened to hear David Bowie has lost his battle with cancer—his music was an inspiration to many.”

Bowie’s fifth album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, released in 1972, tells the story of an alien rock star come to Earth to comfort humanity in its last five years of existence. Ziggy Stardust was ranked the 35th best album of all time by Rolling Stone magazine.

In 1976, Bowie starred in his first film role as an alien who has come to Earth in search of water to take back to his severely drought-ridden planet. In The Man Who Fell to Earth, Bowie’s character must use his knowledge of advanced technology to gain the fortune he needs to build a shuttle for his return trip without letting the Earthly temptations of greed and addiction get in the way. Although clearly not based on a true story, talk of mining other planets or asteroids for materials that are rare on Earth and the pursuit of water elsewhere in our solar system exist well outside the realm of science fiction.


Please note that archive episodes of this podcast may include references to Ask Science. Rights of Albert Einstein are used with permission of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Represented exclusively by Greenlight.

About the Author

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD

Dr Sabrina Stierwalt earned a Ph.D. in Astronomy & Astrophysics from Cornell University and is now a Professor of Physics at Occidental College.