Story by Daniel I. Dorfman
Some of the most profound thoughts on Neil Armstrong, who died at 82 Saturday, came from his friend of 50 years, and another pioneering astronaut, James Lovell of Lake Forest.
Lovell was home when he got word that his close friend, and the man known worldwide for being the first to step foot on the moon in 1969, had passed away.
Lovell had last seen Armstrong about a month and a half ago when they had lunch at Armstrong’s Ohio home. Lovell's and Armstrong's friendship 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 landing on the moon.
Lovell was, in fact, Armstrong’s backup on the Apollo 11 mission that reached the moon.
“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
Armstrong’s legacy may start with the ten world-recognized words he spoke over 43 years ago as he stepped off onto the moon’s surface, 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," Lovell said. "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 ranks Armstrong’s place in U.S. history above other noted events.
“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.”
'When He Spoke, People Listened'
As for his aborted moon mission of Apollo 13, Lovell said a picture that remains in his study is that of Armstrong watching him and the other astronauts splash down, sitting with the Lovell family.
“He was very supportive,” Lovell said about Armstrong, while the world watched the space mission that nearly took his life.
Lovell and Armstrong together studied what happened and eventually discovered what caused Apollo 13's accident, which involved a damaged oxygen line.
Armstrong was rarely seen in public after both men left the space program, forgoing what could have been millions of dollars in marketing opportunities.
“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 NASA's budget as the Space Shuttle program came to an end.