Frank Borman, an Air Force test pilot, astronaut and successful businessman who led the first crew to the moon in 1968, died Tuesday in Montana, NASA said Thursday. He was 95 years old.
“Today we remember one of NASA’s finest,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement. “Astronaut Frank Borman was a true American hero.” Among his many achievements, he served as commander of the Apollo 8 mission in 1968, humanity’s first mission to orbit the moon.
Borman, along with crew members Jim Lovell and Bill Anders, orbited the moon ten times over the course of about 20 hours. They were the first people to see Earth from another world, a reminder of “wonder” that Borman recalled decades later. Apollo 8 produced one of the most famous photos of all time: the iconic “Earthrise,” which shows a blue sphere – the setting for all of human history up to that point – floating in the blackness of space above the charcoal crater gray of the lunar surface.
“Earth looked so lonely in the universe,” Borman said in a NASA oral history. “It’s the only thing that has color. All of our emotions were also focused on our families, which was the most emotional part of the flight for me.”
Frank Borman, cold warrior
Borman was born on March 14, 1928 in Gary, Indiana and grew up in Tucson, Arizona. He learned to fly airplanes as a teenager, then attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point before receiving his commission in the Air Force to begin training as a fighter pilot. Borman followed a similar career path to other early astronauts, becoming an experimental test pilot, receiving a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering from Caltech and serving for a time as an assistant professor at West Point.
NASA began accepting applications in 1962 for a second class of astronauts to follow the original Mercury Seven. Borman was one of the “New Nine” astronauts and reported for training in Houston.
Borman was known for his no-nonsense approach to space travel and laser-focused on mission objectives. For Apollo 8, they were supposed to fly to the moon, take photos of future Apollo landing sites and return safely to Earth, and above all before the Russians. He did not want to take a video camera on Apollo 8 because he feared it would distract from more important tasks, but was overruled by NASA management. “I was stupid,” Borman later admitted.
The live television broadcast of Apollo 8 on Christmas Eve became one of the most memorable moments in the history of the American space program. Borman, Lovell and Anders read from the Book of Genesis and concluded the broadcast with holiday wishes for a television audience of billions: “From the crew of Apollo 8, we close with a goodnight, good luck and a Merry Christmas.”, and God bless you all, all of you on the good earth.”
After returning from the moon, Borman recalled the only guidance he received from Julian Scheer, a NASA public relations official, about what to say to people on Earth: “Do something appropriate.”
The rest was left to Borman. He credited a friend’s wife with advising him to read from the book of Genesis. “I thought it was wonderful,” Borman said.
Borman’s comment on the moon’s appearance from 60 nautical miles reads like a brutal description of a barren wasteland: “I know my own impression is that it is a vast, lonely, forbidding existence, a great expanse of nothingness, which looks more like clouds” and clouds made of pumice, and it certainly doesn’t seem like a very inviting place to live or work.
Apollo 8 was Borman’s second flight into space, following a two-week flight in low Earth orbit in 1965 as part of the Gemini 7 mission, the longest spaceflight to that time.
NASA managers appointed Borman to the committee investigating the 1967 Apollo 1 fire that killed Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee during a ground test at Cape Canaveral, Florida. Borman played a critical role in the aftermath of the tragedy, serving as the Astronaut Office’s sole voice on the investigative committee and vehemently defending the Apollo program before Congress.
These were dark times for NASA, and there was a real risk that the agency would disregard its directive from President Kennedy to land an astronaut on the moon by the late 1960s. “The more we looked for answers, the more depressed the people involved in the investigation became,” Borman later wrote. But the lunar program survived, and Borman oversaw the implementation of changes to the Apollo spacecraft at North American Aviation in Downey, California, to correct the problems that led to the fire.