On Christmas Eve 1968, as commander of Apollo 8 – the first manned lunar orbital mission – Frank Borman, who has died aged 95, uttered words that stood alongside Neil Armstrong’s “giant leap for mankind” from Apollo 11 in 1969: “OK, Houston, We Had a Problem” by Jack Swigert and Jim Lovell from Apollo 13 in 1970 defined an era.
In the moment before the lunar program became commonplace, when astronauts were prime time, the Apollo 8 broadcast ended with the crew – Bill Anders, Lovell and Borman – reading the story of the creation of the Earth as written in the Book of Genesis.
It was Borman’s conclusion: “Good night, good luck, merry Christmas and God bless you all, everyone on the good earth” that tipped the scales. For Gene Kranz, NASA’s flight control chief in Houston, the phrase was “literally magical.” It made you prickly. You could feel the hairs on your arms stand up and the emotions were just incredible.”
For some, this marked the end of the traumatic year of 1968 with the ongoing Vietnam War, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy and the break-up of Czechoslovakia. From a distance – about 238,855 miles – it was apparently still the good Earth.
Around two years earlier, NASA was in crisis. On January 27, 1967, Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee were burned to death during a test launch on Apollo 1. Borman was appointed to NASA’s board, which reported on the fire in April and criticized NASA management and North American Aviation for “ignorance, inertia and negligence.”
Borman was then sent to the North American plant in Downey, California, where drunkenness was rife, to examine the redesign of the command module. “Borman set them straight,” wrote the second man on the moon, Buzz Aldrin, in Men from Earth (1989). “His shoot-from-the-hip leadership style – some called it bullying – worked.”
The Mercury program sent astronauts into space. Gemini – to which Borman had been recruited in 1962 – had refined Apollo’s business: achieving President John F. Kennedy’s goal of a manned moon landing by the end of the decade. In December 1965, Borman and Lovell had made their space debut with a record 14-day orbital period on Gemini 7 and also had a rendezvous with Gemini 6.
After the 1967 tragedy, there were three unmanned Apollo launches with mixed results. But in September 1968, the orbit of the unmanned Soviet spacecraft Zond 5 around the moon caused alarm in the United States. The Soviets had launched Sputnik and the space age in 1957. The first person in space, Yuri Gagarin, orbited the Earth in April 1961. This, along with the uproar over the Bay of Pigs fiasco, had contributed to JFK creating his own work, Rash Promise, in May 1961.
Seven years later, in the fall of 1968, NASA and the CIA wondered whether history would repeat itself. Would a Russian be the first to orbit the moon? In October of this year, Apollo 7 astronauts Wally Schirra, Walter Cunningham and Donn Eisele spent a successful, if cold and restless, 10 days in orbit around Earth. There were rows of ground control. None of these three would get another mission.
NASA needed a breakthrough. Instead of the next planned Earth orbit, Apollo 8 was to be sent to the moon, and after astronaut Jim McDivitt rejected the offer, Borman was given the job. On December 21, Borman, Lovell and Anders took off after a morale-boosting visit from aviator Charles Lindbergh.
Borman’s greatest fear, wrote Andrew Chaikin in “A Man on the Moon” (1994), was that the lunar mission would be aborted and Apollo 8 would only be able to orbit the Earth. This did not happen, but on the way Borman suffered from vomiting and diarrhea, the harmful effects of which spread further and were caught by paper towels. The three men orbited the moon 10 times in 20 hours, descended to a height of 69 miles above the rocky surface, and were the first to see the other side of what Borman called a “great expanse of nothingness.”
On the fourth orbit, Borman discovered the Earth rising behind the Moon – an image that Anders captured on color film and became known as Earthrise. “Oh dear God! Look at that picture over there. “Here comes the earth,” Borman’s scream is recorded in a transcript.
Frank was born in Gary, Indiana, to Edwin Borman, who managed an Oldsmobile dealership, and Marjorie (née Pearce). The family moved to Tucson, Arizona, where his mother opened a boarding house and Frank attended the local high school. He first flew as a teenager in 1943. Seven years later, he graduated from West Point Military Academy in upstate New York.
From 1950, Borman flew F-84 fighter-bombers in the US Air Force. A perforated eardrum prevented him from combat experience in the Korean War. In 1957, he earned a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering from the California Institute of Technology and became an assistant professor of thermodynamics and fluid mechanics at West Point.
Three years later, he graduated from the Aerospace Research Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base in California. His aircraft there included the controversial Mach 2 Lockheed F-104 Starfighter. In 1962, he became one of NASA’s Gemini “New Nine” programs along with Armstrong, Lovell and others. Apollo 8 proved what insiders had known for many years: that the United States had won the space race. Borman, Anders and Lovell were named Time Magazine’s Men of the Year in 1968.
After reaching the rank of colonel in the mid-1960s, Borman retired from the USAF and aerospace and, after a stint at Harvard Business School, joined Eastern Air Lines. He was CEO of Eastern in 1975 and became chairman a year later. But by the late 1970s, competition intensified, labor relations deteriorated and Borman – never a diplomat – found himself in the firing line. He left the company in 1986 when it was taken over by a corporate raider, and Eastern collapsed five years later.
He and his wife Susan (née Bugbee), whom he had married in 1950, moved to New Mexico, where he continued to pursue business interests. They later settled in Billings, Montana, where he owned a cattle ranch and converted vintage airplanes. A supporter of Richard Nixon and both George Bushes, Borman was a man of vivid views. Among the many targets of his ire were sound barrier-breaking pilot Chuck Yeager, Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, and scientist Carl Sagan.
He received numerous awards, including the Congressional Space Medal of Honor in 1978, and published his autobiography Countdown in 1988.
Susan died in 2021. He is survived by his sons Frederick and Edwin, four grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.