Frank Borman obituary
On December 24, 1968, Frank Borman, who passed away at the age of 95, spoke memorable words as the commander of Apollo 8, the first manned mission to orbit the moon. These words, along with Neil Armstrong’s “giant leap for mankind” from Apollo 11 in 1969 and Jack Swigert and Jim Lovell’s “OK, Houston, we’ve had a problem” from Apollo 13 in 1970, are emblematic of a significant time period.
Before the moon program became routine, when astronauts were in the spotlight, Apollo 8’s broadcast concluded with the crew, Bill Anders, Lovell, and Borman, reciting the story of Earth’s origin as described in the book of Genesis.
Borman’s final words, “Good night, good luck, and a merry Christmas. May God bless all of you on this good Earth.” solidified the decision. For Gene Kranz, the head of flight control operations at NASA in Houston, these words were like “pure magic.” They gave him chills and evoked an indescribable level of emotion.
Therefore, for certain individuals, the distressing events of 1968, including the ongoing Vietnam war, the murders of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and the suppression of Czechoslovakia, had been overcome. From a far-off viewpoint – approximately 238,855 miles away – it seemed as though the Earth was still a peaceful place.
Approximately two years before, Nasa was facing a difficult situation. On January 27, 1967, during a test launch, Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee tragically lost their lives on Apollo 1. Borman joined the Nasa board and in April, the board released a report criticizing Nasa management and North American Aviation for their lack of knowledge, laziness, and lack of caution in regards to the fire.
Afterwards, Borman was transferred to North American’s facility in Downey, California where there had been issues with excessive alcohol consumption. His task was to evaluate and make changes to the command module design. Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon, described in his book Men from Earth (1989) how Borman’s direct and assertive approach, which some perceived as aggressive, was effective.
The Mercury programme had put astronauts in space. Gemini – to which Borman had been recruited in 1962 – had honed the business of Apollo: to fulfil President John F Kennedy’s goal of a manned moon landing by the end of the decade. In December 1965, Borman and Lovell had made their space debut with a record 14 days of orbit on Gemini 7, and also made a rendezvous with Gemini 6.
After the tragic events of 1967, there were three Apollo launches without human crew, which had varying degrees of success. However, the unmanned Soviet spacecraft Zond 5’s orbit around the moon in September 1968 caused concern in the United States. The Soviets had made a significant achievement with the launch of Sputnik in 1957, marking the start of the space age. In April 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first person to orbit Earth, and this, combined with the controversy surrounding the Bay of Pigs incident, ultimately led to President John F. Kennedy’s impulsive promise in May 1961.
After seven years, during the fall of 1968, Nasa and the CIA were questioning if history would repeat itself. Could a Russian astronaut be the first to orbit the moon? In October, the Apollo 7 crew members, Wally Schirra, Walter Cunningham, and Donn Eisele, spent 10 days in orbit around Earth, despite being sick and having conflicts among themselves and ground control. Unfortunately, none of them were selected for another mission.
NASA was in search of a significant advancement. Instead of the previously scheduled Earth orbit, Apollo 8 was redirected to the moon. After astronaut Jim McDivitt declined the opportunity, Borman was selected for the mission. On December 21, after receiving a morale boost from aviator Charles Lindbergh, Borman, Lovell, and Anders took off.
According to Andrew Chaikin’s book A Man on the Moon (1994), Borman’s biggest concern was that the Apollo 8 mission would be cancelled and they would only be able to orbit the Earth. Fortunately, this did not occur, but Borman did experience nausea and diarrhea during the journey, resulting in waste being collected with paper towels. The three astronauts orbited the moon 10 times in 20 hours, descended to 69 miles above its surface, and were the first to see the far side, which Borman described as “a vast expanse of emptiness.”
During the fourth rotation, Borman noticed the Earth appearing from behind the moon. Anders was able to capture this moment on color film, which is now famously known as Earthrise. Borman’s excitement was captured in a transcript as he exclaimed, “Oh my God! Look at the picture over there. Here’s the Earth coming up.”
Frank was born in Gary, Indiana to Edwin Borman and Marjorie Pearce. His father owned an Oldsmobile dealership and his mother ran a boarding house in Tucson, Arizona. Frank attended the local high school there and began flying at the age of 14 in 1943. In 1950, he graduated from West Point Military Academy in New York.
In 1950, Borman joined the US Air Force and flew F-84 fighter-bombers. However, he was unable to gain combat experience during the Korean War due to a perforated ear drum. In 1957, he obtained a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering from the California Institute of Technology and began working as an assistant professor of thermodynamics and fluid mechanics at West Point.
Three years after, he completed his studies at the Aerospace Research Pilot School in Edwards Air Force Base, located in California. During his time there, he flew the infamous Mach 2 Lockheed F-104 Starfighter. In 1962, he joined Armstrong, Lovell, and others as part of the “New Nine” for NASA’s Gemini Program. The success of Apollo 8 confirmed what those within the industry had known for quite some time: the US was the winner of the space race. Borman, along with Anders and Lovell, were named Time magazine’s “Men of the Year” in 1968.
After reaching the rank of colonel in the mid-1960s, Borman retired from both the United States Air Force and space exploration. Following a period at Harvard Business School, he joined Eastern Air Lines. In 1975, he became Eastern’s CEO and the following year was appointed chairman. However, in the late 1970s, the company faced increased competition and strained labor relations. Borman, known for his lack of diplomacy, faced criticism. He ultimately left the company in 1986 when it was acquired by a corporate raider, and Eastern eventually went bankrupt five years later.
He and his wife, Susan (nee Bugbee), whom he had married in 1950, moved to New Mexico, where he remained involved in business interests. They later settled in Billings, Montana, where he had a cattle ranch and rebuilt vintage aircraft. A supporter of Richard Nixon and both George Bushes, Borman was a man of brisk views. Among the many targets of his ire were the sound barrier-breaking pilot Chuck Yeager, the Democratic party presidential candidate Michael Dukakis and the scientist Carl Sagan.
He was presented with numerous accolades, such as the Congressional Space Medal of Honor in 1978, and released his memoir, Countdown, in 1988.
In 2021, Susan passed away. She is survived by her sons, Frederick and Edwin, as well as four grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.