Frank Borman, an 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 is 95 years old.
“Today we remember one of the best of NASA,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement. “Astronaut Frank Borman is a true American hero. Among his many accomplishments, he served as commander of the Apollo 8 mission, mankind’s first mission to orbit the Moon in 1968.”
Borman, along with crewmen Jim Lovell and Bill Anders, orbited the moon 10 times in about 20 hours. They were the first humans to see Earth from another world, a “surprise” Borman recalled decades later. Apollo 8 produced one of the most famous photographs ever taken, the iconic “Earthrice” that spanned the entirety of human history up to that point, showing the blue orb resting on the moon’s cratered surface in charcoal gray and the blackness of space.
“Earth seemed very lonely in the universe,” Borman said in a NASA oral history. “It was the only thing in color. All of our emotions were concentrated back with our families, so that was the most emotional part of the flight for me.”
Frank Borman, Cold Warrior
Borman was born on March 14, 1928 in Cary, Indiana, and grew up in Tucson, Arizona. He learned to fly airplanes at a young age, then attended the United States Military Academy at West Point and received a commission in the Air Force to begin training as a fighter pilot. Following a similar career path to other early astronauts, Borman became an experimental test pilot, earned a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering from Caltech, and served as an assistant professor at West Point.
In 1962, NASA accepted applications for a second class of astronauts to follow the original Mercury Seven. Borman was one of the “New Nine” astronauts, and he reported to Houston for training.
Borman, known for his no-nonsense approach to spaceflight, was razor-focused on mission objectives. For Apollo 8, they had to fly to the moon, take pictures of future Apollo landing sites, and return safely to Earth, essentially before the Russians did. He didn’t want a video camera on Apollo 8, worried it would distract from more important missions, but was overruled by NASA management. “I was dumbfounded by it,” Borman later admitted.
The live television broadcast from Apollo 8 on Christmas Eve became one of the most memorable moments in the history of America’s space program. Borman, Lovell and Anders read from the book of Genesis and close the broadcast with a holiday greeting to the billion-strong television audience: “From the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, and a merry Christmas. God bless you all on good earth.”
After returning from the moon, Borman recalled the only guidance he received from Julian Scheer, NASA’s public relations officer, about what to say to people on Earth: “Do something relevant.”
The rest was left to Borman. He commended a friend’s wife on the advice to read from the book of Genesis. “I thought it was fantastic,” Borman said.
Borman’s description of the Moon’s appearance from 60 nautical miles above is like a grim description of a barren land: “My own impression is that it is a vast, lonely forbidding kind of existence, a vast expanse of nothingness, looking like clouds. And crystal clouds, and it certainly cannot live or work.” Doesn’t seem like a very inviting place to do it.”
Apollo 8 was Borman’s second spaceflight, following a two-week flight in low Earth orbit on the Gemini 7 mission in 1965.
In 1967, NASA managers appointed Borman to a team investigating the Apollo 1 fire that killed Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee during a ground test at Cape Canaveral, Florida. Borman played an important role in the aftermath of the tragedy, serving as the sole voice for the Astronaut Office on investigative committees and strongly advocating the Apollo program to Congress.
These were dark times for NASA, with the agency in danger of missing President Kennedy’s order to land an astronaut on the moon in the late 1960s. “The more we delved into the answers, the more dejected the subjects became,” Borman later wrote. But the Moon program survived, and Borman oversaw the implementation of changes to the Apollo spacecraft at North American Aviation in Downey, California, eliminating the problems that led to the fire.
As flights resumed after the Apollo 1 tragedy, Borman was tasked with testing the Apollo lunar module in high Earth orbit, part of a phased approach that would prove the lander was ready to fly to the moon. But circumstances changed in mid-1968, when the CIA announced that the Soviet Union might send a crew around the moon by the end of the year. That would have been an embarrassment for NASA in the race to the moon.
George Lowe, a top 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, Low proposed sending only the Apollo command and service modules on a flight around the moon in December.
It was a bold move. When DK 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 for the mission. Ultimately, no Soviet cosmonauts flew around the moon.
“There’s no question that Apollo 8 accelerated the importance of going to the moon because, in the final analysis, the Apollo program was a battle in the Cold War,” Borman said. “This is a political move.”
Borman, Lovell and Anders spent four months training for the lunar mission, a compressed training schedule that required astronauts and their support crews to work long days and weekends. Not only did the mission take humans farther from Earth than ever before, but astronauts became the first to launch atop a giant Saturn V rocket, just two test flights into the relatively unproven vehicle Apollo 8.
It worked like a charm. Time magazine named the Apollo 8 astronauts their People of the Year, and Borman traveled on publicity tours to Europe and the Soviet Union in 1969, helping to sow the seeds for the US-Russian partnership on the Apollo-Soyuz mission six years later. When Apollo 11 landed the first men on the moon in July 1969, Borman was the NASA liaison to the White House. He urged President Nixon not to fly the “Star-Spangled Banner” or hold a top ceremony to mark the landing. Instead, Nixon kept his comments brief.
With Apollo 11 in the history books, Borman moved on from NASA and retired from the Air Force as a colonel. “I don’t mind picking up rocks or anything,” he later said with characteristic bluntness. “I wanted to beat the Soviets to the moon.”
Michael Collins, author of one of the most interesting memoirs of the Apollo astronauts, described Borman as “aggressive” and “brilliant.” Borman, Collins wrote, “makes decisions faster than anyone I’ve ever met—with a surprisingly good batting average, and would be even better if he were a little slower.” Writing in 1974, Collins predicted that Borman would be the most successful of the Apollo astronauts after leaving NASA. This prediction hit the mark.
After leaving government service in 1970, Borman became an executive at Eastern Airlines, eventually rising to CEO in 1975. Borman resigned from Eastern in 1986 and served on several corporate boards later in his career. In retirement, he found new interests in raising and rebuilding old airplanes.
His wife Susan, 71, died in 2021. Before his death, Borman was 11 days older than former NASA astronaut, Jim Lovell, his Gemini 7 and Apollo 8 crew, who has now assumed the title.
Borman’s death comes a week after another Apollo astronaut, Ken Mattingly, who orbited the moon on Apollo 16 in 1972. Of the 24 people who traveled to the moon on the Apollo missions, eight are still alive: Jim Lovell, Bill 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 landings—are training for NASA’s Artemis II mission, which is expected to fly around the moon in 2025. Lunar landings with astronauts will continue into the late 2020s. This is the closest we’ll ever get to returning to the moon since the end of Apollo.
“When Frank said, “Exploration is truly the essence of the human spirit,” he knew the energy exploration could bring together humanity,” said NASA Administrator Nelson. Cosmic Shores.”