CINCINNATI — Two fellow lunar pioneers helped launch a children's health fund Friday in memory of Neil Armstrong, whom they praised as an inspirational team player, a humble hero.
Eugene Cernan and James Lovell spoke at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center a few hours before a private service in suburban Cincinnati for Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, who died Saturday at 82. A national memorial service in Washington is being planned within the next two weeks; President Barack Obama ordered U.S. flags to fly at half-staff to honor Armstrong.
"America has truly lost a legend," said Cernan, who said Armstrong was a hero who "came from the culture of our country," growing up on a western Ohio farm, flying combat missions, and then joining the space program.
Cernan and Lovell recounted visiting U.S troops in Iraq and Afghanistan with Armstrong, saying he always had an inspirational impact when meeting troops, schoolchildren and other admirers around the world.
Lovell said Armstrong was "a great American" who never capitalized on his celebrity and just "wanted to be a team player." While Armstrong said any of the astronauts could have been the first to walk on the moon, Lovell and Cernan said Armstrong was the right choice for the way he handled suddenly becoming an icon.
"There's nobody that I know of that could have accepted the challenge and responsibility that came with being that with more dignity than Neil Armstrong," Cernan said.
Cernan was the last astronaut to walk on the moon. Lovell was commander of Apollo 13, where an oxygen tank in the spaceship exploded and the moon mission was aborted.
Lovell and Cernan said they had visited Armstrong two months ago in his suburban Indian Hill home, and he cooked breakfast for them — and burned the eggs, Cernan said.
"Neil Armstrong was probably one of the most human guys I've ever known in my life," he said.
Armstrong's family has suggested memorial contributions to two scholarship funds in his name or to the Neil Armstrong New Frontiers Initiative at Cincinnati Children's. His wife, Carol, is on the hospital's board.
The astronauts were joined Friday by 14-year-old Shane DiGiovanna, an aspiring aerospace engineer with a rare skin tissue disease. He is able to hear after a cochlear implant, with a device developed by a NASA scientist.
Before the announcement, Shane, who said Armstrong has always inspired him, quizzed the two astronauts about details of their missions. Lovell recounted the streams of oxygen that wrapped their spacecraft "like a cocoon" after the tank explosion. The harrowing Apollo 13 flight was recounted in his book and depicted in the popular movie, in which Tom Hanks played Lovell.
Cernan told him he was disappointed that the U.S. manned spaceflight program was halted, but predicted Americans would someday return to the moon, and that Shane's generation would reach Mars.
A complete list hadn't been released, but other attendees for Friday's service included Apollo astronaut William Anders and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, a Cincinnati-area Republican, was to give the eulogy.
Relatives described Armstrong, who largely shunned publicity after his moon mission, as "a reluctant American hero."
Raised in Wapakoneta, he developed an early love for aviation. He served as a U.S. Navy pilot flying combat missions in Korea, then became a test pilot after finishing college. Accepted into NASA's second astronaut class in 1962, he commanded the Gemini 8 mission in 1966.
He then commanded Apollo 11's historic moon landing on July 20, 1969. As a worldwide audience watched on TV, Armstrong took the step on the lunar surface he called "one giant leap for mankind."
After his space career, he returned to Ohio, teaching aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati and generally avoiding public view for most of the rest of his life.
Armstrong married Carol Knight in 1999. He had two sons from a previous marriage.
Two UC student groups interested in space will gather Friday evening on a campus lawn with telescopes for viewing the moon, and to hear some of Armstrong's former students speak.
In announcing his death, Armstrong's family requested that when people "see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink."