In the song "Space Oddity", from Bowie's self-titled 1969 album, Major Tom's departure from Earth is successful and everything goes according to plan. Major Tom leaves his space craft and sees Earth, "Here am I sitting in a tin can / Far above the world / Planet Earth is blue / And there's nothing I can do." But later Ground Control loses contact with Major Tom because of an electronic malfunction. "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?..."
Some 11 years later, Bowie writes the song "Ashes To Ashes" on the 1980 album Scary Monsters, Major Tom sends a cryptic message back to earth, signifying that he did not die in the original song: "I've heard a rumour from Ground Control / Oh no, don't say it's true / They got a message from the Action Man "I'm happy, hope you're happy too / I've loved all I've needed to love / Sordid details following"... Ashes to ashes, funk to funky / We know Major Tom's a junkie / Strung out in heaven's high / Hitting an all-time low..."
Was Maj. Tom simply "on the nod" when ground control tried to reach him at the tail end of "Space Oddity"? Was he just ignoring his radio and laughing? Passed out in his bubble? Are we to believe Maj. Tom was nothing more than a junky?
Some parts of Ukraine and other areas in the northwest of the former Soviet Union, appears to be the origin of a space race era neo-folk tale about a boy who was in love with the moon and later became a cosmonaut in attempt to reach the moon.
The earliest recollection of this tale is unknown but the character was referred to as Major Tom as early as around 1968 (a year before Bowie's "Space Oddity" was released).
In this story, Major Tom does make his way to the Moon, only to be stranded there alone. In popular slang, a person is sometimes referred to as a "Major Tom" if they are generally carefree and focused on chasing their own goals with no regard for having any way to get back or no regard for safety or whatever consequences.
Although "Major Tom" may be considered a metaphor for the different perspective of a person with an altered state of consciousness, whether through drugs or some other means, and alludes to such elements of pop culture as Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, its overt reference is to a lost or stranded astronaut, and thus draws upon public awareness of the United States space program, which was well-known throughout the 1960's.
BONUS FUN FACT: Bowie's self-titled 1969 album was renamed "Space Oddity" and re-released in 1972 to coincide with the moon landing.