Frank Borman, commander of first Apollo moon mission, dies aged 95

Frank Borman, the astronaut who commanded Apollo 8’s historic Christmas 1968 flight that circled the moon 10 times and paved the way for the lunar landing the following year, has died aged 95.

Borman died on Tuesday in Billings, Montana, according to Nasa. He also led the troubled Eastern Airlines in the 1970s and early 80s after leaving the astronaut corps.

But he was best known for his Nasa duties. He and his crew, James Lovell and William Anders, were the first Apollo mission to fly to the moon – and to see Earth as a distant sphere in space.

“Today we remember one of Nasa’s best. Astronaut Frank Borman was a true American hero,” Nasa administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement on Thursday. “His lifelong love for aviation and exploration was only surpassed by his love for his wife, Susan.”

After Apollo 8 was launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida on 21 December 1968, the trio of astronauts spent three days travelling to the moon, and the craft slipped into lunar orbit on Christmas Eve. They circled 10 times on 24-25 December, before heading home on 27 December.

On Christmas Eve, the astronauts read from the book of Genesis in the Bible over a live telecast from the orbiter. “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the Earth. And the Earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.”

L-R: Apollo 8 astronauts Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders, who became the first humans to escape Earth’s gravity.
L-R: Apollo 8 astronauts Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders, who became the first humans to escape Earth’s gravity. Photograph: Nasa/AFP/Getty Images

Borman ended the broadcast with: “And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a merry Christmas, and God bless all of you – all of you on the good Earth.”

Lovell and Borman had previously flown together during the two-week Gemini 7 mission, which launched on 4 December 1965 – and, at only 120 feet apart, completed the first space orbital rendezvous with Gemini 6.

“Gemini was a tough go,” Borman told the Associated Press in 1998. “It was smaller than the front seat of a Volkswagen Bug. It made Apollo seem like a super-duper, plush touring bus.”

In his book, Countdown: An Autobiography, Borman said Apollo 8 was originally supposed to orbit Earth. The success of Apollo 7’s mission in October 1968 to show system reliability on long duration flights made Nasa decide it was time to take a shot at flying to the moon.

But Borman said there was another reason Nasa changed the plan: the agency wanted to beat Russia. Borman said he thought one orbit would suffice.

“My main concern in this whole flight was to get there ahead of the Russians and get home. That was a significant achievement in my eyes,” Borman said during a Chicago appearance in 2017.

It was on the crew’s fourth orbit that Anders snapped the Earthrise photo showing a blue and white Earth rising above the gray lunar landscape.

Borman wrote about how the Earth looked from afar: “We were the first humans to see the world in its majestic totality, an intensely emotional experience for each of us. We said nothing to each other, but I was sure our thoughts were identical – of our families on that spinning globe. And maybe we shared another thought I had: ‘This must be what God sees.’”

After Nasa, Borman’s aviation career ventured into business in 1970 when he joined Eastern Airlines – at that time the US’s fourth-largest airline. He eventually became Eastern’s president and CEO and in 1976 also became chair of the board.

During Borman’s tenure at Eastern, fuel prices increased sharply and the government deregulated the airline industry. The company became increasingly unprofitable, debt-ridden and torn by labour tensions. He resigned in 1986 and moved to Las Cruces, New Mexico.

In his autobiography, Borman wrote that his fascination with flying began in his teens when he and his father would assemble model aeroplanes. At the age of 15, Borman took flying lessons, using money he had saved working as a bag boy and being a petrol pump attendant after school. He took his first solo flight after eight hours of dual instruction. He continued flying into his 90s.

Borman was born in Gary, Indiana, but was raised in Tucson, Arizona. He attended the US Military Academy at West Point, where he earned a bachelor of science degree in 1950. That same year, Borman married his high-school sweetheart, Susan Bugbee. She died in 2021.

Borman worked as a US air force fighter pilot, operational pilot and instructor at West Point after graduation. In 1956, he moved his family to Pasadena, California, where he earned a master of science degree in aeronautical engineering from California Institute of Technology. In 1962, he was one of nine test pilots chosen by Nasa for the astronaut programme.

He received the Congressional Space Medal of Honor from President Jimmy Carter.

In 1998, Borman started a cattle ranch in Bighorn, Montana, with his son Fred. In addition to Fred, he is survived by another son, Edwin, and their families.


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