Reading Time: 3 minutes

spacewalk

I’m on about bedtime again— but this time it’s the soundtrack.

My mother sung me to sleep for most of my childhood, and I love her for it. In hopes that my own children will profess love for me in their eventual blogs, I sing to them every night as well. And for no other reason.

At an average of two songs per child per night, that’s nearly 20,000 songs so far. Easily bored as I am, the repertoire doesn’t stand still for long: Stardust, Yesterday, Danny Boy, Kentucky Babe, Long and Winding Road, Witchdoctor, Cat’s Cradle, Unchained Melody, Stand By Me, Blackbird, Michelle, The Christmas Song, Lady in Red (not that one), Imagine, Close to You, Mean Mister Mustard, Everything’s All Right (from Superstar, with Judas’ angry outburst included), Happy Together, The Galaxy Song, Our Love is Here to Stay…you know, stuff like that.

A few nights ago, an old friend floated into my head, unbidden—and I began to sing a song that once reached further into my imagination than perhaps any other before or since:

Ground Control to Major Tom…
Ground Control to Major Tom…
Take your protein pills and put your helmet on…

“What…in…the…world?!” Erin’s head was off the pillow. I could feel the puzzled glare cutting through the dark.

(“10”) Ground Control (“9”) to Major Tom (“8”)…(“7”)
(“6”) Commencing countdown, engines on…(“3”)
(“2”) Check ignition, and may God’s love be with you…

“This is weird,” said Delaney.

“This is TOTALLY weird,” said Erin, leaning forward on her elbow.

“This is…”

THIS IS GROUND CONTROL TO MAJOR TOM
YOU’VE REALLY MADE THE GRADE
AND THE PAPERS WANT TO KNOW WHOSE SHIRTS YOU WEAR
NOW IT’S TIME TO LEAVE THE CAPSULE IF YOU DARE

I was only slightly older than Delaney when Neil Armstrong celebrated my wedding anniversary by landing on the moon 22 years in advance, to the day. It was the same year David Bowie gave us Major Tom. I watched the moon landing with my parents, who tried very hard to impress the significance on me. I was a complete NASAholic by age eight.

As I built model after model of the lunar module and command module and watched telecasts of one Apollo crew after another in grainy black-and-white, I recall being both awed and miffed at the astronauts—awed because I wanted so much to be in their boots, and miffed because they were all business. Houston this and Houston that. Engaging the forward boosters, Houston. Switching on the doohickey, Houston. Even in elementary school, it occurred to me that there should be a little more evidence of personal transformation. I wanted to hear them say Ooooooooooooo, in a fully uncrewcutted, unprofessional way. Holy cow, I wanted. I’m in outer space.

Eventually we got golfing on the moon and some zero-G hijinks. That’s fine. But that’s not transformation. I wanted evidence that they were moved by their experience, that they would never be the same after seeing Earth from space. They wrote about it years later when I was in college, but it was in high school that a Bowie song I’d never heard before finally said what I’d waited to hear. Take it, Major Tom:

Here am I sitting in a tin can
Far above the world
Planet Earth is blue, and there’s nothing I can do

Though I’m past 100,000 miles
I’m feeling very still
And I think my spaceship knows which way to go
Tell my wife I love her very much, she knows.

For three days now we’ve listened to Bowie’s version rather than my own at bedtime, complete with those epic Mellotron strings, and debated what exactly happens in those final stanzas. The girls demand to know: Is he okay? What happened? Does he come back?

Ground Control to Major Tom
Your circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong
Can you hear me Major Tom?
Can you hear me Major Tom?
Can you hear me Major Tom?
Can you

Here am I floating ’round my tin can,
Far above the Moon,
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do.

“Omigosh,” said Connor after one hearing. “He killed himself.”

“No he did not!” I was indignant, partly because it had never occurred to me.

“Yes he did. ‘Tell my wife I love her very much’—and then his circuit goes dead? Come on, Dad.”

I’d heard the song a thousand times. Yes, I thought he might not have made it, but it never once occurred to me that he’d done himself in. Huh.

It makes sense. He was moved, all right. He was so transformed by the experience that he liberated himself from Ground Control, unhooked his tether, and went careening, blissfully, beyond the moon.

Okay then. Be careful what you wish for.

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.