Frank Borman, the Air Force test pilot, astronaut and accomplished businessman who led the first crew to fly 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 astronauts. Astronaut Frank Borman was a true American hero,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement. Among his many accomplishments is that he served as mission commander of Apollo 8, the first human mission around the moon, in 1968.
Borman, accompanied by colleagues Jim Lovell and Bill Anders, orbited the Moon 10 times over the course of about 20 hours. They were the first to see Earth from another world, a “wonder” memory Bormann recalled decades later. Apollo 8 produced one of the most famous images ever taken, the famous “Earthrise” image showing a blue orb — the setting for all of human history up to that point — suspended in the blackness of space above the charcoal gray of the moon’s cratered surface.
“The Earth seemed so alone in the universe,” Borman said in the NASA oral history. “It’s the only thing about the colors. All of our emotions were focused there with our families as well, so that was the most emotional part of the trip for me.”
Frank Borman, the cold warrior
Borman was born in Gary, Indiana, on March 14, 1928, and grew up in Tucson, Arizona. He learned to fly planes as a teenager, then attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point before earning his commission in the Air Force to begin training as a fighter pilot. Borman followed a career path similar to other early astronauts, becoming an experimental test pilot, earning a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering from the California Institute of Technology, and serving as an assistant professor at West Point.
NASA accepted applications for a second batch of astronauts in 1962 to track the original Mercury Seven. Borman was one of the “new nine” astronauts, and he attended training in Houston.
Borman, known for his no-nonsense approach to spaceflight, was laser-focused on the mission’s objectives. As for Apollo 8, it was supposed to fly to the Moon, take pictures of future Apollo landing sites, then return to Earth safely and, most importantly, do so before the Russians. He did not want to take a video camera to Apollo 8, fearing it would distract him from more important missions, but NASA canceled it. Boorman later admitted: “I was stupid about it.”
The live television broadcast from 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 an audience of a billion people watching on television: “From the crew of Apollo 8, we close the broadcast with a good night, good luck, and a Merry Christmas.” May God bless you all, in the good land.”
After returning from the Moon, Borman recalled the only direction he received from Julian Scheer, NASA’s public relations official, regarding what to say to people on Earth: “Do something appropriate.”
He left the rest to Bormann. He credited a friend’s wife for her advice on reading the Book of Genesis. “I thought it was great,” Borman said.
Bormann’s comment on the Moon’s appearance from a height of 60 nautical miles sounds like a brutal description of a barren wasteland: “I know my own impression is that it is a vast, desolate existence of a forbidding kind, a great expanse of nothing, looking like clouds. Clouds of pumice, and certainly “It doesn’t look like a very attractive place to live or work.”
Apollo 8 was Borman’s second flight into space, following a two-week journey into low Earth orbit in 1965 on the Gemini 7 mission, the longest space flight up to that time.
NASA administrators appointed Borman to the board of inquiry into the Apollo 1 fire in 1967, which 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 lone voice on the Board of Inquiry and staunchly defending the Apollo program before Congress.
These were difficult times for NASA, with a real danger that the agency might miss its directive from President Kennedy to land an astronaut on the moon by the end of the 1960s. “The more we searched for answers, the more depressed the people became in the investigation,” Bormann later wrote. But the Moon program survived, and Borman oversaw the implementation of changes to the Apollo spacecraft at North American Aeronautics in Downey, California, to eliminate the problems that led to the fire.
With flights resuming after the Apollo 1 tragedy, Borman was assigned a mission to test the Apollo lunar module in high Earth orbit, part of a step-by-step approach to proving that the lander was ready to fly to the Moon. But circumstances changed in mid-1968, when the CIA reported that the Soviet Union might launch a crew around the Moon by the end of the year. That would have been embarrassing for NASA in the race to the moon.
George Lu, a senior official at the space agency, suggested a change in plans. The first lunar module would not be ready for testing in space until early 1969, so in August Lu proposed sending only the Apollo command and service modules on a circumnavigation of the Moon in December.
It was a bold move. When Dick Slayton, head of the Astronaut Office, asked Borman if he wanted to fly Apollo 8 to the Moon, the commander did not hesitate to sign up his crew to participate in the mission. In the end, no Soviet cosmonaut ever flew around the moon.
“There’s no doubt that this accelerated the focus on Apollo 8 to the moon, because the Apollo program, in the final analysis, was a battle in the Cold War,” Borman said. “It was a political move.”
Borman, Lovell and Anders trained for four months for the lunar mission, a compressed training schedule that requires the astronauts and their support teams to work long days and weekends. Not only did the mission take humans further from Earth than ever before, but the astronauts became the first to launch atop a giant Saturn V rocket, a relatively unproven vehicle with only two test flights on Apollo 8.
Everything works like magic. Time magazine named the Apollo 8 astronauts Men of the Year, and Borman traveled to Europe and the Soviet Union on propaganda tours in 1969, helping to sow the seeds of the American-Russian partnership on the Apollo-Soyuz mission six years later. When Apollo 11 landed the first human on the moon in July 1969, Borman was NASA’s White House liaison. He helped convince President Nixon not to play the “Star-Spangled Banner” or organize a large ceremony to mark the landing. Instead, Nixon kept his remarks short.
With Apollo 11 in the history books, Borman moved on from NASA and retired as an Air Force colonel, abandoning any chance of flying in space again. “I didn’t care about picking up rocks or anything else,” he later said with characteristic candor. “I wanted to beat the Soviets to get to the moon.”
Michael Collins, who wrote one of the most interesting memoirs of any of the Apollo astronauts, described Borman as “aggressive” and “capable.” Collins wrote that Boorman “makes decisions faster than anyone I’ve ever met—with an astonishingly good batting average, which would be better if he slowed down a little.” In 1974, Collins predicted that Borman would be one of the most successful Apollo astronauts after leaving NASA. This projection hit the mark.
After leaving government service in 1970, Borman became an executive at Eastern Airlines, eventually rising through the ranks to become CEO in 1975. Borman resigned from Eastern in 1986 and served on several corporate boards late in his career. After retirement, he found a new passion in ranching and rebuilding old airplanes.
Susan, his wife of 71 years, died in 2021. Before his death, Borman was NASA’s oldest living former astronaut, 11 days older than Jim Lovell, his Gemini 7 and Apollo 8 crewmate, who now holds the title.
Borman’s death comes a week after the death of another Apollo astronaut, Ken Mattingly, who flew into lunar orbit aboard Apollo 16 in 1972. Of the 24 people who traveled to the Moon on the Apollo missions, eight are still alive: Jim Lovell, Bell. Anders, Tom Stafford, Buzz Aldrin, Fred Hayes, Dave Scott, Charlie Duke, and Jack Schmidt.
As the remaining members of the first generation of lunar explorers reach their late 80s and early 90s, four younger astronauts — all born after the Apollo landing — are training for NASA’s Artemis 2 mission, which is expected to fly around the moon in 2025. To follow A lunar landing mission with astronauts is due later in 2020. This is the closest anyone has gotten to returning to the Moon since the end of Apollo.
“Frank recognized the importance of exploring the Force in uniting humanity when he said, ‘Exploration is truly at the core of the human spirit,’” said NASA Administrator Nelson. “His service to NASA and our nation will undoubtedly fuel the Artemis generation to reach new heights on cosmic shores.”
“Web maven. Infuriatingly humble beer geek. Bacon fanatic. Typical creator. Music expert.”