Frank Borman, Astronaut Who Led First Orbit of the Moon, Dies at 95


Frank Borman, the commander of NASA’s 1968 Apollo 8 spaceflight, whose astronauts became the first men to orbit the moon, captured the famed image known as Earthrise and read lines from Genesis to deliver a brief Christmastime uplift to a troubled America, died on Tuesday in Billings, Mont. He was 95.

His death was announced by NASA.

Apollo 8 carried three astronauts farther from Earth than anyone had ever traveled. It orbited the lunar surface 10 times, flying nearly 60 miles above its surface, to photograph a bleak and rock-strewn terrain, seeking potential landing spots for the moonwalks to come.

Mr. Borman, who never set foot on the moon — and by his own account had no desire to do so — flew in space twice.

In December 1965, he commanded the two-man Gemini 7 spacecraft on a 14-day flight that set what was then a record for time spent in space. Gemini 7 rendezvoused with Gemini 6A as it orbited Earth, a significant step toward perfecting a similar maneuver that would be required when astronauts reached the moon.

“Trained as a fighter pilot and known for his lightning-quick reflexes and exceptional decision-making skills, Borman was one of the best pure pilots NASA had,” James A. Lovell Jr., who flew with Mr. Borman on both Gemini 7 and Apollo 8, wrote in “Lost Moon” (1994), a collaboration with Jeffrey Kluger recounting the near-fatal Apollo 13 mission, on which he flew.

“When Frank Borman walked into a room, you knew that he was in charge,” Andrew Chaikin wrote in his book “A Man on the Moon” (1994).

“He’d been molded at West Point,” Mr. Chaikin added. “At age 40, he still wore his dirty-blond hair as short as a cadet’s, and he still lived by the Point’s simple motto: Duty, Honor, Country. The mission came first.”

Mr. Borman retired from NASA and the Air Force in 1970, but he remained a national figure as the chairman of the financially troubled Eastern Airlines, appearing in television commercials in which he told customers, “We have to earn our wings every day.” He waged a long battle to cut labor and management costs before leaving Eastern in 1986, when it was taken over by Texas Air.

Frank Frederick Borman was born on March 14, 1928, in Gary, Ind. He was the only child of Edwin Borman, who owned an Oldsmobile dealership there, and Marjorie (Pearce) Borman. When he was 5, Frank visited Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio, and a lifelong passion for aviation was kindled.

“Dad took me for a five-dollar ride with a barnstorming pilot in an old biplane,” he recalled in “Countdown” (1988), a memoir written with Robert J. Serling. “I sat next to Dad in the front seat, with the pilot in the cockpit behind us, and I was captivated by the feel of the wind and the sense of freedom that flight creates so magically.”

When he was a boy, his family moved to Tucson, Ariz., hoping that the dry climate would help alleviate his sinus and mastoid problems. But amid the Depression, his father had trouble finding a good job in the automotive trades, and his mother opened a boardinghouse to help meet expenses.

Frank remained intrigued by aviation. He built model planes with his father’s help and obtained a pilot’s license at age 15.

He entered West Point soon after World War II ended, graduated in 1950 and became an Air Force fighter pilot, but he was not assigned to combat in the Korean War. After receiving a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering from the California Institute of Technology in 1957, he became a test pilot and helped develop spaceflight testing programs for future astronauts at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

He was named to the Gemini group of astronauts, who followed the original Mercury Seven, in September 1962.

In January 1967, the Apollo project was struck by disaster when a cockpit fire at a launchpad at Cape Kennedy, Fla., killed three astronauts. Mr. Borman was a member of the team that investigated the fire, and he helped redesign the Apollo capsule, eliminating flaws that had contributed to the deaths.

He continued to train for a spaceflight. His Gemini 7 flight with Mr. Lovell experienced fuel cell problems, but proved that astronauts could work effectively on the long-endurance flights envisioned for moon exploration.

Gemini 7 took part in a pioneering rendezvous 185 miles above Earth when Gemini 6A, carrying Capt. Walter M. Schirra Jr. of the Navy and Maj. Thomas P. Stafford of the Air Force, caught up to it and flew alongside it in orbit. That kind of maneuver had to be perfected in order for a lunar module to descend to the moon from an orbiting command ship and later blast off from the lunar surface, then rendezvous and link up with the mother ship for the trip back to Earth.

The Apollo 8 mission, carrying Mr. Borman, then an Air Force colonel; Mr. Lovell, then a Navy captain; and Maj. William A. Anders of the Air Force, was only the second manned flight in the Apollo program. Several unmanned test flights had followed in the wake of the Apollo 1 disaster. It was also the first manned flight employing the hugely powerful Saturn 5 rocket for liftoff.

Among his numerous images of the moon’s surface taken from Apollo 8, Major Anders photographed the relatively smooth area known as the Sea of Tranquility, which became, as envisioned, the site for the epic landing of Apollo 11 in July 1969, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to walk on the moon.

On their fourth orbit of the moon, on Christmas Eve 1968, the Apollo 8 astronauts saw Earth rising above the lunar horizon from a distance of more than 230,000 miles, a smallish but sparkling blue and white body amid the blackness. Mr. Borman was the first to spot it. Major Anders, who had been photographing the moon with black-and-white film, switched quickly to color to capture the image.

A photo transmitted for television that night showed Earth in black and white. But a year later, NASA released a color photo taken by Major Anders, the image that became known as Earthrise. It was reproduced on a 1969 postage stamp bearing the words “In the beginning God …” from Genesis, and it became a symbol for the first Earth Day in 1970 and the modern environmental movement that day helped spawn.

When the astronauts neared completion of their orbiting, they began their second and last television broadcast. The bright moon, in the black sea of space, was visible outside a spacecraft window. Mr. Borman described it as a “vast, lonely forbidding expanse of nothing, rather like clouds and clouds of pumice stone.”

The astronauts took turns reading from the Book of Genesis, telling of Earth’s creation. Mr. Borman concluded the telecast with the words: “Good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.”

In his memoir, Mr. Borman told of “a telegram from someone I didn’t know, just an ordinary citizen. He wired: ‘To the crew of Apollo 8. Thank you. You saved 1968.’”

The astronauts’ readings from scripture came near the conclusion of a traumatic year. Vietnam War casualties had mounted, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy had been assassinated, colleges were engulfed in antiwar demonstrations, and protests against racial injustice and economic inequality raged.

The Apollo 8 astronauts were named Time magazine’s Men of the Year, were hailed in parades in New York, Chicago and Washington, and appeared before a joint meeting of Congress.

In contrast to his two NASA flights, Mr. Borman’s tenure in the business world was hardly smooth.

He became the chairman of Eastern Airlines in 1976, when the company was close to bankruptcy. Mr. Borman persuaded the airline’s unions to accept a wage freeze along with the industry’s first profit-sharing plan. He also made deep cuts in management ranks; in contrast to the luxury cars favored by many of his executive predecessors, he drove an old Chevrolet to his office.

Eastern, based in Miami, became profitable in the late 1970s but suffered when airline deregulation came into full force in 1979, drawing competition from low-cost carriers like People Express and Air Florida. And Mr. Borman’s decision to spend heavily on modernizing Eastern’s fleet increased debt pressure.

Eastern’s board agreed to a takeover by Texas Air in February 1986, and Mr. Borman resigned that summer. Eastern later went into bankruptcy and ceased operations in January 1991.

Mr. Borman lived in Las Cruces, N.M., after leaving Eastern. He became chairman of Patlex Corporation, a holder of patents on laser technology, and flew antique planes. He later moved to Billings, where he had a ranch.

Mr. Borman married Susan Bugbee, whom he had met in high school, in 1950. She died in 2021. They had two sons, Frederick and Edwin. Information about his survivors was not immediately available.

For all his accomplishments, Mr. Borman seemed indifferent to the experience of space travel.

“I was there because it was a battle in the Cold War,” he said in an interview on the NPR program “This American Life” in 2018. “I wanted to participate in this American adventure of beating the Soviets. But that’s the only thing that motivated me.”

He could probably have walked on the moon on a subsequent mission, he said, but didn’t want to.

“I would have not accepted the risk involved to go pick up rocks,” he said. “I love my family more than anything in the world. I would have never subjected them to the dangers simply for me to be an explorer.”

What awed him most, he said, was his view of Earth from Apollo 8. As he put it, “The contrast between our memories of the Earth and the color on the Earth and the totally bleak and dead moon was striking.”

It was an image, he said, that he would “recall till the day I die.”


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