SOUTHERN PINES, N.C. — James Prim has many memories of the moon landing 50 years ago.
After all, how many people can say they were in the home of the astronaut who was taking the first steps on the moon while it was being broadcast around the world?
Prim, who is 80 and now lives in Southern Pines, was a NASA engineer who helped design the lunar module that Neil Armstrong was in when he landed on the moon.
From 1960 until 1978, Prim worked as an engineer for NASA and handled training exercises for the original Mercury astronauts. He helped redesign the lunar module so it weighed less and could take off safely. Before retiring, he also worked on the Skylab program.
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On July 20, 1969 — the day of the moon landing — Prim and his wife at the time, Merle Alano, lived next door to the Armstrongs in El Lago, a close-knit community in Texas that was home to many astronauts and their families.
Alano, who is 80 and now lives in Southport, North Carolina, said she was particularly close to Janet Armstrong, Neil's wife.
Alano remembers that on that day she and Prim were at the Armstrongs' house to support Janet because there were no guarantees that Armstrong would return home.
“We were invited over there because we were close to Jan and so we would be a support system for her,” she said.
Alano said that as Armstrong stepped on the moon, there wasn't a lot of talk.
“We were pretty much just in awe. We were pretty much speechless,” she said. “We were just listening to air-to-ground (transmissions) piped in from NASA, and we were able to watch, and the children were very young at that time.”
She said Janet Armstrong understood the risks her husband was taking.
“She was a very strong person and accepted that this was a goal that Neil had for his life, and she supported that,” Alano said
Prim said NASA had a special telephone line set up so Janet Armstrong could talk to Neil from the lunar module if need be.
"All of the lines to the Control Center had been forwarded to his home so that Jan could talk in private," he said.
As neighbors, the two families had cookouts. Their kids swam together. The families took evening sailboat rides on Galveston Bay.
When Neil Armstrong was quarantined after returning from the moon, he played a ukulele given to him by Prim to pass the time. His playing made the national news.
“My husband and I had gone to Hawaii,” Alano said. “He was capsule communicator for one of the flights and brought back a ukulele."
Prim's daughter, Kimberly, now 57, said she was playing with Armstrong's kids during the moon landing and doesn't remember much else.
“My brother seems to think we had the TV on in the other room,” she said.
She said the community had many astronauts and their families. At the time, they thought nothing of the significance of it.
“It's been an honor,” she said. “And it's exciting to know that we grew up with things that are now such an accomplishment for people.”
She said when Apollo missions were on television during school days, the kids would go to the cafeteria and watch the broadcast.
“The kids would say: 'There's my dad.' That was kind of cool,” Kimberly Prim said.
When Neil Armstrong came back from the moon and was out of quarantine, he came by the Prim house, hugged Kimberly and gave her a doll that he said he got at a store on the moon. She said she didn't believe it, but Armstrong insisted that he was being serious.
“I said, 'There's not a store on the moon,'” she said. “I said, 'You're teasing me.' He said, 'No. No. No.'”
Prim has photo albums full of pictures with signatures and words of thanks from astronauts he worked with over the years, including one from John Glenn thanking him for training him for flight.
NASA engineers initially worried that the weight of the lunar module might be too heavy for it to lift off from the moon, potentially stranding two astronauts, he said.
James Prim said the redesign of the module could have delayed the moon landing by several years, but he suggested ways to cut back on weight, such as eliminating a mounting bracket for backpacks.
“I said, 'We need to find out what we are not going to use. We need to put the backpack on the floor of the lunar module,'" he said.
Alano said Janet Armstrong, who died in 2018, was portrayed inaccurately in the movie “First Man.” She said the movie made her come across as unintelligent and didn't portray her as a giving person, both of which were false.
“That was about as completely opposite of what she was as you could imagine,” she said. “She was a very gentle person. She did a lot in the neighborhood. She taught all the neighborhood kids synchronized swimming in her swimming pool, and taught all the girls how to do the water ballet. She was very good at that. She was a genuinely nice person.”
Alano said Armstrong was not a particularly social person.
“He had us over one night and he made pizza from scratch,” she said. “He was selective (in his friends), wasn't a real outgoing person but was very cordial.”
Alano said she has fond memories of the time of the moon landing.
"I think it was a wonderful thing that we did, and it brought all sorts of new ideas into the world and new inventions," she said. "One of the things that we take for granted is Velcro. That was invented in the space program. So were lots of different things."