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Lovell Reflects on Death of Neil Armstrong

When Neil Armstrong became first person to walk on moon, Lake Forest resident was his backup. They were friends for 50 years.

Some of the most profound thoughts on the death Saturday of Neil Armstrong, the first person to set foot on the moon, came from his colleague and friend of 50 years, James Lovell of Lake Forest.

“He is the epitome of what America stands for,” Lovell said Saturday of Armstrong, 82, as people offered accolades from The White HouseNASAArmstrong’s alma mater of Purdue and elsewhere.

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Lovell was home in Lake Forest when he got the word his close friend of 50 years and the man known worldwide for being the first to set foot on the moon in July, 1969, had died.

Lovell had seen Armstrong only about a month and a half ago at Armstrong’s home in Ohio where they had lunch together.  It was the final meeting of the two men, whose friendship had formed in the 1960s as they were part of the second group of American astronauts in the Gemini program, the predecessor to Project Apollo, which was charged with a moon landing.

Lovell was in fact, Armstrong’s backup on Apollo 11, that most famous of all space missions. “I always kidded him that I was trying to break his legs so I could fly the flight but he was too healthy,” Lovell joked on Saturday.

Moon Landing Was Complete American Teamwork

Trying to assess Armstrong’s legacy starts with the ten words he spoke over 43 years ago as Armstrong stepped off the ladder of his space ship onto the moon’s surface and is now part of American lexicon, but Lovell looks back at his old friend another way.

“His legacy is an example if we want to accomplish a project as the American people that we must work together as a team with good leadership and be able to do that. The Apollo program is an example of what you can do if you have the will and given the authority to do something.

“It was hundreds of companies working together to accomplish a single goal. We could do that today with some of the major projects that we always seem to have controversy about and never get anyplace.”

Lovell was also asked to try and rank Armstrong’s place in U.S. history.

“What else happened in the 20th Century?” Lovell asked. “We’ve had several wars of course. We had a lot of technical achievements but landing on the moon is an accomplishment of what you can accomplish if you put your mind it.”

Armstrong Was There For Lovell Family in Time of Need

As for his aborted moon mission of Apollo 13, Lovell said a picture that remains in his study is that of Armstrong watching the splashdown of the astronauts with the Lovell family.

“He was very supportive,” Lovell recalled of the aftermath of the mission that nearly ended in catastrophe.

Lovell and Armstrong subsequently sat down and discussed what happened and eventually discovered the cause of the accident.

After both men left the space program, Armstrong was rarely seen in public, forgoing what likely would have been millions of dollars in marketing opportunities, instead choosing to avoid the limelight.

“He was kind of quiet, but when he spoke, people listened,” Lovell said. “He always felt that his going to the moon was nothing unusual and that anyone of us could do that and he was just doing his job. He didn’t want to exploit his being the first on the moon. He just wanted to be part of the team that helped get him to the moon and get the other people to the moon.”

In recent years, both men were concerned about the NASA budget as the Space Shuttle program came to an end. “He was saddened that we seem to be taking a different direction in our space activities,” Lovell said.

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