S.P. Native Had Role in Apollo 11 Landing
Forty years ago Monday, as Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, Southern Pines native Jim Prim was watching him on television -- from Armstrong's own living room.
"My wife and I and his wife were watching it on his TV set," Prim says. "Would you believe it? It was very calm. His kids were asleep. It was just me, my wife, and his wife in their living room. We were listening to the air ground and everything being said from mission control. We had a monitoring box where his wife could hear everything being said to the astronauts."
Prim grew up next to the Southern Pines school grounds. He graduated from Southern Pines High School in 1956 and headed off to engineering school at N.C. State. Like many, he dreamed of space and rockets to the moon, never realizing he would become one of those who made it happen.
He started out with NASA back in the days of the Mercury program, staying through Gemini and then Apollo. After those first footprints formed in the lunar dust as Buzz Aldrin and Armstrong planted the U.S. flag, Prim moved to the Skylab program. After retiring, he moved back to Southern Pines.
It had been a long voyage for a boy from Moore County, one he looks back on with awe.
"I trained the original seven astronauts," says Prim, who worked in the flight crew support division to begin with. "That was the division I started out in as engineer training the astronauts in the beginning."
It meant he would find himself literally floating in air on hundreds of zero-gravity training flights as those early astronauts practiced getting in and out of spacecraft in an airplane that had been put into a deliberate fall to simulate space conditions. The plane would follow a parabolic ascent and falling descent.
"At one time, we could only do four parabolas during the day," Prim says. "The last time I flew, we did 118 parabolas at zero G."
Prim will never forget the first time he wore contacts in zero G.
"I was floating up near the ceiling," he says. "There was a photographer floating below me. The astronauts were practicing entries and exits from Gemini. I got too close to a photoflood and it melted the shoulder of my flight suit."
His nostrils filled with noxious fumes from the melting nylon, and Prim "turned chipmunk" trying to hold in his mouth what was trying to come up.
"I don't want to spray it over everybody," he says. "What you do is rotate about your center of gravity to get to your air sickness bag."
"Never been sick in my life flying that airplane. I finally got the bag out just as the pilot pulled out of the maneuver -- at about a G and a half. I just got the bag to my face, when the test director said, 'Double!' -- which meant 'Go back to zero as quick as you can.' When they went zero, everything came up in my face. I had my eyes so tightly closed I thought, 'Oh, my God, my contacts are in that bag!' But, they were still in my eyes. Spent rest of that flight watching the pilot watch needles go up and down."
It was a life filled with intense effort, hard on marriages but full of excitement, hard work and danger. He knew well all three of the astronauts killed in the early Apollo cabin fire.
"Ed White was Neil Armstrong's next door neighbor," Prim says. "I watched Neil's Gemini launch (at Cape Canaveral) and went to North Carolina on vacation. I watched his Apollo launch and drove back to Houston."
The Armstrong and Prim families grew close, with Prim's kids learning to swim in the Armstrong pool.
"Their house burned to the ground the night my son was born," he says. "They put the wrong paneling up in his living room, and took it off by just driving the nails on in."
One of those nails went into an electric wire and started a fire.
"His wife and two boys got out through the bath," he says. "They got through there to the pool where my boys learned to swim."
The families were close in those days, though Prim has not spoken to Armstrong in a long time.
"Neil has been very private," Prim says. "He'd just as soon not be known as one of the first men to step on the moon."
Had it not been for an idea Prim had that solved one particular problem, those first steps on the moon might never have been seen on television. The camera might have had be left behind to save weight.
"The ascent module was too heavy," Prim says. "I heard them talking about it."
Prim made a suggestion: move things that would be used only on the moon into the bottom part of the lander to lighten the load on the part that would return to earth. There was a pack lying on the floor, and Armstrong pulled a D-ring to open it.
"It flopped open, and there was a TV camera," Prim says. "That was the camera that took the pictures we watched in his living room."
By stowing that equipment in the lander section, the ascent module was lightened enough to be able to take off and return. In thinking back, that sticks in Prim's mind as his proudest contribution to the conquest of space.
"This week, I was very proud I helped us land on the moon in 1969 with a factor that took away the weight concern," he says. "Although I only proposed the concept. I am very proud of the people that did what they did."
Prim watched his friend land the Eagle without a moment's worry.
"Neil was a tremendous pilot," Prim says. "I never was apprehensive a bit about it. I never had any doubt. It never crossed my mind. When you know what's going on, what everybody has gone through, you don't get apprehensive about what he has been trained for."
Contact John Chappell at 783-5841 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
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