Remembering Frank Borman, a vanguard astronaut of the Space Age

Frank Borman preparing for the launch of the Apollo 8 mission, December 21, 1968.

Frank Borman preparing for the launch of the Apollo 8 mission, December 21, 1968.
| Photo Credit: NASA

With the passing of Frank Borman, commander of the historic Apollo 8 – the first crewed mission to the moon – in Montana last week, the world has lost a vanguard astronaut of the Space Age. At 95, Borman was the oldest living astronaut, a distinction that now passes to his Apollo 8 command module pilot, James Lovell, who is also 95.

Born March 14, 1928 in Gary, Indiana, Borman was an only child who suffered from sinus problems in Indiana’s perpetually cold and humid weather. This forced his parents to move to warmer Tucson, Arizona, where Borman learned to fly at 15. His passion for flying saw him transition through several positions as a fighter pilot, experimental test pilot, and assistant professor of thermodynamics and fluid mechanics at the West Point Military Academy.

Gemini 7 and a record

Around that time, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) had completed its ‘Mercury’ programme of putting astronauts into space and was pooling candidates for its ‘Gemini’ programme – to understand manoeuvrability and space-walking in earth orbit. The agency spotted Borman’s experience and expertise and picked him to join its second group of astronauts. Thus, in 1962, Borman became one of the so-called “New Nine” astronauts in ‘Gemini’ that included, among others, Lovell and Neil Armstrong.

In December 1965, Borman and Lovell made their space debut in the Gemini 7. The cramped capsule, smaller than the rear seat of an autorickshaw, added to the exhaustion of the astronauts who spent two weeks in earth orbit – at that time a record for the longest crewed spaceflight. Borman, piloting Gemini 7, also made a successful docking with Gemini 6 flown by Wally Schirra and Thomas P. Stafford, a crucial manoeuvre for future moon missions. Until Gemini 7, NASA wasn’t even sure that humans could survive in space for such a long time!

Twin disasters

In those days, the space race between the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. was heating up and NASA was in a hurry to achieve President John F. Kennedy’s declared goal of “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth before this decade is out”. Alas, 1967 turned out to be a year of disaster for both the Soviets and the Americans. In January, Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffeem, and Edward White died in a fire that broke out in an Apollo capsule on the launch pad at Cape Kennedy; in April, Vladimir Komarov died when his Soyuz spacecraft crashed after a parachute malfunction.

The team that probed the Apollo accident included Borman, who was the first to enter the burnt-out capsule. His selection in the team was also an acknowledgement of his uncompromising commitment to protocol and no-nonsense approach to work, one that almost verged on worship. The report blamed NASA management and private contractors like North American Aviation for their shocking carelessness that led to the disaster. It fell to Borman to inspect North American’s manufacturing facilities in California to rein in its unruly workers – a task he completed successfully, leading to a redesigned command module for the Apollo programme.

Apollo 8 and ‘Earthrise’

Apollo 8 was originally planned to be an earth-orbiting mission, not a moon flight. But a Central Intelligence Agency warning that the Soviets were planning a crewed moon mission forced NASA to gamble on sending Apollo 8 to the moon. Borman’s leadership qualities and lightning quick reflexes again earned him the commander’s position on the mission which was, in a sense, arguably a greater achievement than even the Apollo 11 lunar landing mission.

Borman, Lovell, and Anders were the first humans to travel to another world when they blasted off moonward atop the giant untested Saturn V rocket 55 years ago. It was the farthest anyone had ever travelled as they became the first humans to leave the earth’s gravitational field and orbit the moon.

The high point of their flight came on Christmas Eve 1968, when they captured the iconic photograph of the earth rising from behind the moon, ‘Earthrise’. Considered the most powerful environmental image of all time, it reminds humans of the priceless legacy this planet represents. As Borman recalled later, “Earth looked so lonely in the universe. It’s the only thing with colour.”

Earthrise, 1968.

Earthrise, 1968.
| Photo Credit:
Bill Anders/NASA

As they flew 100 km above the moon and prepared to head back to the earth, the astronauts read verses from the Book of Genesis, televised live to a spellbound world 3,85,000 km away. Ending the telecast, Borman famously said: “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.”

Offer to lead Apollo 11

Apollo 8 was probably the best of all Apollo flights in terms of its precise flight path and the absence of glitches – features that prompted Director of Flight Crew Operations Deke Slayton to pick the Apollo 8 crew for Apollo 11. This meant Borman, as Apollo 11 commander, would have actually been the first man on the moon. But the quintessential test pilot that he was, Borman chose flight-testing over science and declined the offer. In fact, he did not participate in any more space missions after Apollo 8.

In 1970, Borman left the astronaut corps because of his wife’s alcohol dependency and later joined Eastern Air Lines. After retiring as the airline’s chief executive officer in 1986, this much-decorated space hero led a quiet life in his ranch in New Mexico, rebuilding and flying World War 2 and Korean War aircraft.

The author is a science writer.

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