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Hundreds pay tribute to Neil Armstrong at Kennedy Space Center

By Irene Klotz

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - As family and friends of Neil Armstrong gathered in Ohio on Friday for a private memorial service, NASA paid tribute to the Apollo astronaut, calling him a great American and a space hero.

"He never dwelled on his remarkable accomplishments or sought the limelight," Kennedy Space Center director and former astronaut Robert Cabana said during a short tribute to Armstrong at the Visitor Complex's Apollo-Saturn 5 Center.

"He just wanted to be part of this remarkable team and to continue to move us forward," Cabana said.

More than 400 people, including NASA employees, community leaders and tourists gathered to remember Armstrong, who died on August 25 following complications from heart surgery. He was 82.

A national memorial service in Washington is expected to be held in September.

Armstrong rocketed into the history books as commander of NASA's Apollo 11 mission in July 1969, the first to land astronauts on the lunar surface.

Cabana, a retired Marine colonel who flew four space shuttle missions, hailed Armstrong as a pilot and astronaut, but said his greatest contribution was as a teacher.

"He wanted to share his knowledge and his experience and see us continue to be a world leader," in space and aeronautics, Cabana said.

"He always took the time to share his thoughts on technical issues and his experiences from the past, and he was greatly interested in Kennedy Space Center's path forward to the future," Cabana said.

The Florida space port is being transformed following the end of the 30-year-old space shuttle program last year. NASA intends to open the base to commercial, research and military partners.

Armstrong had agreed to speak at the Kennedy Space Center's 50th anniversary gala next month, Cabana said.

"When I got hold of him he said, 'You know, I really don't want to be the guest of honor. I just want to be another out-of-town attendee coming to celebrate,'" Cabana said.

"I said, 'Well Neil, will you still be willing to talk?' And he said, 'Well, of course. Can you give me a hint on what you'd like me to talk about?' -- as if we wouldn't hang on every word that he had to say no matter what it was," Cabana added.

"That's the kind of guy Neil was," he said.

NASA administrator Charles Bolden, also a former astronaut, said the United States has an obligation to build on Armstrong's legacy.

"Neil Armstrong's first step on the moon paved the way for others to be the 'first' to step foot on another planet," Bolden said in a statement on Friday.

"A grateful nation offers praise and salutes a humble servant who answered the call and dared to dream," he said.

(Editing by Kevin Gray and Eric Walsh)

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