It's been half a century since humans first landed on the moon. An estimated 530 million people around the world watched and listened on July 20, 1969, as Apollo 11's lunar module touched down at 4:17 p.m. EDT. About six hours later, Neil Armstrong took “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” as Buzz Aldrin prepared to join him, and Michael Collins waited alone in the skies above for their return. For some famous (and later-to-be-famous) observers, the moment changed everything.
There are plenty of things I don't remember, but I remember the moon landing vividly. I turned 22 on July 19 and was down in Cornwall, England, at the house of Roger Taylor's — our drummer's — mum. We were still amateur musicians in those days, trying to get people to pay us 20 pounds a gig. That night we watched this tiny, little screen on the Taylors’ TV, and we were all clustered around. What I remember most was that my dad was wrong. My dad was a pretty talented electronics engineer throughout and after World War II, and three years before Apollo 11, he said, “Oh, we'll never get to the moon in our lifetime. It's just technically too difficult.” So to see this incredible event happening on television, something that Dad said was impossible — it somehow made it all the more awe-inspiring.
I knew I wanted to be a rock musician, but the moon landing further confirmed that I needed to pursue astronomy, as well. I'd been hooked since I was 9 or 10 and would beg to stay up past my bedtime to watch a program on the BBC called The Sky at Night, about the cosmos. I was endlessly fascinated. The year after the moon landing, I began the long course of study for my Ph.D. in astrophysics at Imperial College. Through everything that happened with Queen, my interest in what's out there never faded. Some people say the space race, the moon landing — oh, that stuff doesn't matter. But it mattered to me. It's like Stephen Hawking once said, “We explore because we are human, and we want to know,” and in a sense, that's all you need to say to people. I just love finding out about the universe, from Earth to the moon and beyond.
I'm probably one of the few people alive from that time who didn't watch the moon landing live on TV. I graduated from high school in 1969 and, just a few weeks later, headed off to the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. We started with summer basic training, and our superiors would not break protocol to allow us to watch the event. We were told the next day that it was a success, but it would be many months before I got to see the replay. It didn't matter. I was already under the spell of Apollo 11 and everything that had led up to it.
My dad was cool enough to let me stay home from school in the early ‘60s in north Texas so I could see the first manned space launches from Cape Canaveral in Florida. Once I witnessed those, I knew I wanted to fly. There was never even a plan B. Neil Armstrong was an early role model, long before the moon landing. As a test pilot, he flew the X-15, the hypersonic rocket-powered research aircraft, and remained the master of his craft, and the master of himself, no matter what challenges he faced. It's what allowed him to manually fly the Apollo 11 lunar lander in those final moments, with fuel dwindling and boulders beneath him and the whole world watching, and still land it and land it well. That sense of calm under pressure and the responsibility of flight, it certainly stuck with me and guided me.
After the Hudson landing 10 years ago, I had a chance to meet Neil, when he presented me with the Neil Armstrong Award of Excellence at Purdue, where we're both alums. I treasure that experience. Although he was a very private person, as I am, I think he came to terms with the idea that people need to feel a certain way about an event and those directly involved with it, and he graciously received the public's gratitude.
I think, above all, what I took from Neil and Apollo 11 and my career was the value of doing something for a purpose. At any age — as a kid, in your career, in retirement, even as a society — there are huge advantages not just to loving what you do every day but to committing deeply to your passion, to being thoughtful and constantly striving for excellence. It's what's always motivated me to be a continuous, lifelong learner. It's not just doing the same flight 20,000 times but, rather, trying to make each flight better than the previous one. That puts you on a path not just to the moon but to a meaningful life.
To me, it was the most magnificent moment in human history and also a moment of complete misery from a personal standpoint. Star Trek had recently been canceled. I was freshly divorced. I was broke and doing summer stock because I needed the money. The play I was doing ran from Tuesday through Saturday night, and on that night of the landing I was in a pasture on Long Island, stretched out on my little bed in the camper top on my pickup truck. I was there with my Doberman, gazing up at the moon through a tiny window and, at the same time, watching the live broadcast on a 4-inch black-and-white television.
Many months earlier, because of the popularity of Star Trek, I'd had the privilege of visiting the cape and actually getting into the lunar module and lying in one of the hammocks where the astronauts would sleep. When I stepped out, all the engineers and astronauts were laughing because they'd assembled a model of the Starship Enterprise and projected it on a screen where they normally put the star systems. Someone said they put the model together with great difficulty, and I said, “Why? It's not rocket science.” Nobody laughed.
Someone at NASA told me that the more Star Trek's ratings were up, the more money Congress would put into the space program. So, in some minute way, I felt I contributed to this Apollo 11 venture. But by that summer, the show was gone and I was at my nadir, yearning somehow to be in the apogee of all that the moon shot represented.
I know the moon landing was a huge, big deal, but it seemed really normal to me as an 8-year-old. My kid brain went, Of course we're on the moon! Why wouldn't we be? In those days my father worked on the Navy's experimental Sealab program, where people lived at the bottom of the ocean for long periods. So I grew up knowing people who went to extreme places. Some of them were aquanauts in addition to being astronauts, like Scott Carpenter, from Project Mercury, who would come to our house for tuna casserole.
The teams in space and on the ground that made the Apollo missions happen were some of the most wonderful people from all ends of the earth, but they were just people. And I loved that. It made me want to be an astronaut. When I flew on the space shuttle and, later, on the space station, I would sometimes look out at the moon and feel the opposite of what I guess you'd call FOMO [fear of missing out]. I didn't feel like I missed something by not going there. Just knowing that people got there — regular people, albeit very brave ones — it makes it so that I'm there a little bit. I think we can all say that. Humans pulled this off. We can do incredible things. Impossible things! And that's something we can all take pride in.
I had just done a movie called Goodbye, Columbus. I had never been in a big movie, and the head of the studio, Robert Evans, invited me to have lunch with him at La Grenouille, the best and fanciest restaurant in New York City. It was all quite foreign territory to me. I lived on the Upper West Side, and after this business meeting I walked home. About two blocks from where I lived, on the sidewalk, was a big old fat-bellied TV that someone had pulled outside of a brownstone so everybody passing by could watch. It was a rough year, with the Manson murders, equality marches, poverty, war. But whatever state we were in, there on that stoop, that afternoon and evening, as we stood together as strangers and neighbors, it was, Oh, my God, we're going to fix these problems because of the bravery and promise of what these men are doing! The energy was so hopeful. Incidentally, I ultimately married Robert Evans, and we have a son.
There's a saying you always hear: If they can put a man on the moon, they can do this or that. Well, those weren't just words for me that day. I had just come back from Vietnam and was in the solarium of the Philadelphia Naval Hospital, at the beginning of my recovery from having part of my leg amputated. They hadn't even started the process of fitting the prosthetic, but watching Armstrong and Aldrin that night gave me hope. Anything that takes your mind out of despair is a good thing, and Apollo 11 certainly did that. Seeing men on the moon reminded all of us of how unimaginably large the universe is and what a tiny part in it we play. That concept still gives me perspective. It's this idea of, “Look beyond yourself; there's bigger stuff out there.”
I was 17 and camping in Canada at the time and got myself to the only television within 50 miles of where I was. It was at a store, and I stood there with random strangers looking up at the black-and-white TV. There was a personal element for me, though. My father helped build the rocket. He worked closely with Wernher von Braun, and I grew up with the space program. I was thinking how proud my dad must be, watching his rocket take these guys up to the moon. I was certainly proud of my dad. Today I'm on the board of governors of the National Space Society, and this summer I'm hosting a huge bash in Los Angeles with Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins in attendance. It's going to be epic!
Dad was doing the CBS broadcast that night. I was up at boarding school in Vermont, finishing up high school in a few weeks, later than anticipated. I was a young 18 and very caught up, as teenagers sometimes are, in my own life. We had a lot of student rebellion going on at school and demanding our rights to go barefoot or whatever. But the space program was very much part of my life. One of my earliest memories was sitting on wet sand at Cape Canaveral, watching those first tiny NASA rockets go up like firecrackers, do a little loop and come right back down. It was the beginning of all that, and my siblings and I would chase up and down the halls of the Holiday Inn, where the CBS crew and all the astronauts would stay. There was a sense, because of who my dad was, that this was all extremely important, but I was just a kid. I probably bumped right into Neil Armstrong and didn't even know it. The night of the moon landing, we had to get permission to watch things in the dean's office, which we did. It was just mind-boggling. A few weeks later, we got permission from the same dean to take a field trip to the Woodstock festival. That was mind-boggling, too, but in a different way.
We were at home, in Queens. I was in our living room with my mom and dad and brother and two sisters. The biggest deal was that we could actually just see this happening live, right there at home, on our Sears color television. It really ushered in a whole new era of media that sort of launched me on my way. Later, over the years, I got to meet Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, John Glenn, Sally Ride — all my heroes. It was being in the presence of true pioneer spirit.
I was at the Yale School of Drama, in a fellow student's apartment. We were playing Monopoly and watching his very small color television set. We were eating Ebinger's blackout cake, also from Brooklyn. It was the most incredible chocolate cake you can imagine. Anyway, as that guy was leaping out of his spaceship, I felt very proud of America. What was going through my head was what an experience for that guy leaping out of his spaceship. What an experience for America that they figured this out, because I have trouble counting change. And that these men and women could figure out how to accomplish this in the first place was just incomprehensible. And here I was, alive to watch this miracle happen, enjoying this great piece of moist chocolate cake. We were just silent as it happened. No one was buying Baltic Avenue; we were just watching in awe.