Recording and release
Three primary studio versions of "Space Oddity" exist: an early version recorded in February 1969, the album version recorded that June (edited for release as a single), and a 1979 re-recording.
The early studio version of "Space Oddity" was recorded on 2 February 1969 for Bowie's promotional film Love You Till Tuesday. Bowie and his then musical partner John Hutchinson shared lead vocals and played acoustic guitars, with Bowie adding ocarina and a Stylophone. The lineup on the first studio version also included Colin Wood (Hammond organ and Mellotron), Dave Clague (bass), and Tat Meager (drums). This recording became commercially available in 1984, on a belated VHS release of the film and accompanying soundtrack album. It subsequently appeared on the compilation albums London Boy (full-length version, 4:31) and The Deram Anthology 1966–1968.
In June 1969, after Bowie's split from record label Deram, his manager, Kenneth Pitt, negotiated a one-album deal (with options for a further one or two albums) with Mercury Records and its UK subsidiary, Philips. Mercury executives had heard an audition tape that included a demo of "Space Oddity" recorded by Bowie and Hutchinson. Next Bowie tried to find a producer. George Martin turned the project down, while Tony Visconti liked the album demo-tracks, but considered the planned lead-off single, "Space Oddity", a 'cheap shot' at the impending Apollo 11 space mission. Visconti decided to delegate its production to Gus Dudgeon.
The album version of "Space Oddity" (5:15) was recorded at Trident Studios on 20 June 1969 (with overdubs a few days later) and used the in-house session player Rick Wakeman (Mellotron), who was later to achieve fame with the progressive rock band Yes, as well as Mick Wayne (guitar), Herbie Flowers (bass), and Terry Cox (drums). Bowie sang lead and harmony vocals and played acoustic guitar and the Stylophone. Differing edits of the album version were released as singles, in the UK (mono, 4:33), the US (mono and stereo, 3:26), and several other countries. The original UK mono single edit was included on Re:Call 1, part of the Five Years (1969–1973) boxed set, in 2015.
The song was promoted in advertisements for the Stylophone, played by Bowie on the record and heard in the background during the opening verse. The single was not played by the BBC until after the Apollo 11 crew had safely returned; after this slow start, the song reached No. 5 in the UK Singles Chart. In the US, it stalled at 124.
Besides its title, which alludes to the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, the introduction to the song is a barely audible instrumental build-up that is analogous to the deep bass tone in Also sprach Zarathustra that is prominently used in the film.
On 2 October 1969, Bowie performed the song for an episode of Top of the Pops. However, this was recorded separate from the main audience. The performance was shown on 9 October the following week, and repeated on 16 October. At present, the performance is 'missing' due to the BBC's late junking policy.
Mogol wrote Italian lyrics for the song, and Bowie recorded a new vocal in December 1969, releasing the single "Ragazzo solo, ragazza sola" ("Lonely Boy, Lonely Girl") in Italy.
Upon its re-release as a single in 1973, "Space Oddity" reached No. 15 on the Billboard Chart and became Bowie's first hit single in the United States; in Canada, it reached No. 16. This was then used to support RCA's 1975 UK reissue, which gave Bowie his first No. 1 single in the UK Singles Chart in November that year. It spent two weeks at the top of that chart.
Bowie recorded a stripped-down, acoustic version of the song in late 1979, which was issued in February 1980 as the B-side of "Alabama Song". The 1979 recording was released, in a remixed form, in 1992 on the Rykodisc reissue of Bowie's Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) album, and it was rereleased on Re:Call 3, part of the A New Career in a New Town (1977–1982) compilation, in 2017.
On 20 July 2009, the single was reissued on a digital EP that features the original UK and US mono single edits, a subsequent US stereo single edit, and the 1979 rerecording, as well as stems that allow listeners to remix the song. This release coincided with the 40th anniversary of the song and the Apollo 11 moon landing.
There were also demos recorded in early 1969, two of which have since had an official commercial release.
An early demo was recorded in approximately late January 1969. This demo differs greatly from the album version, with only an acoustic guitar and Stylophone present as instruments. The vocals in this demo were provided by Bowie and Hutchinson. Hutchinson sang the lead vocals of the "Ground Control section" up until "...This is Major Tom to Ground Control...", while Bowie sang the harmony vocals. When the aforementioned lyric begins, however, the source of the lead vocals switches to Bowie as he continues to provide them for the rest of the song. Hutchinson played the acoustic guitar, while Bowie played the Stylophone. The demo remained officially unreleased for more than 40 years until it appeared on the 2009 two-CD special edition of the album David Bowie.
Bowie and Hutchinson recorded another demo version in approximately mid-April 1969. That recording appeared, as the opening track, on the 1989 boxed set Sound + Vision. (The compilation also saw the first appearance on CD of the original "Space Oddity" single's B-side, "Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud".)