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Moonwalker has 'lift off' on final mission

Neil Armstrong never capitalised on his celebrity and just wanted to be part of a team. Yet he ended up making history and becoming an American hero, fellow astronauts said as they gathered to celebrate the life of the first man to walk on the moon.

His former colleagues joined political and business leaders, family and friends gathered in suburban Cincinnati yesterday at a private club for a closed service for Armstrong, who died last Saturday, aged 82.

"America has truly lost a legend," said fellow Apollo astronaut Eugene 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 programme.

The service included a Navy ceremonial guard, and comments by Armstrong's two sons and Senator Rob Portman of Ohio. A flyover by Navy fighter planes was planned at the end of the service, in tribute to Armstrong's Navy pilot service that included combat missions in Korea.

A national memorial service is planned in Washington on September 12.

No guest list for yesterday's memorial was released, but among some 10 former astronauts attending were space pioneer John Glenn and Armstrong's fellow Apollo astronauts Cernan, James Lovell and William Anders.

Earlier, Cernan and Lovell spoke at a Cincinnati hospital to launch a children's health fund in Armstrong's memory. They recounted visiting US 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 capitalised 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 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.

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 US 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 at the University of Cincinnati and generally avoiding public view for most of the rest of his life.

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".