Thursday, November 9, 2023

Frank Borman, Apollo 8 Commander Led First Lunar Flyby Dies at 95

Collect Space reports today the Apollo 8 mission commander Frank Borman passed away Tuesday, November 7th at home in Billings, Montana.  His wife of 70 years, Susan, preceded him in 2021. 

If you're of a certain age group, and were not just alive during these missions but rabidly following them, you just might be feeling a little bit of a gut punch.  Apollo 8 was one of the defining moments of the era, the first human flyby of the the moon. Much like Apollo 11, and that other event 60 years ago this month, the assassination of President Kennedy, it's one of a handful of things I'll remember all my life; where I was, what I was doing.

A look through this blog's history looks like I've written about Apollo 8 every year, pretty much only on Christmas Eve.  Christmas Eve was the day they orbited the moon, the day that the crew spoke to us of the "stark and unappetizing" look of the lunar surface and read from the book of Genesis, the first book in the Christian bible.  Here on Earth, 1968 had been a tumultuous year. There had been riots in many places, assassinations and troubles all around the globe. On Christmas eve, in awe of what these men were doing, it seemed like the world held its breath and watched.  Like Apollo 11, seven months later, it seemed to uniquely unite the world and hold everyone's attention. 

Collect Space expands the story into a biography of Frank Borman, as is appropriate. As usual, I present a little of it to whet your appetite to go Read The Whole Thing. 

Launched on Dec. 21, 1968, Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders became the first astronauts to ride atop the Saturn V, which at the time was the United States' most powerful rocket. The booster's third stage accelerated the Apollo 8 crew from 17,000 to 24,000 miles per hour (27,000 to 39,000 kph), the fastest any astronauts had traveled up to that point in history.

"The Saturn V was a unique vehicle," said Borman in a 1999 NASA oral history interview. "It was powerful and noisy and vibrated, and the stagings were really kind of violent. But when you got on the third stage, the S-IVB, it was smooth and quiet."

Borman and his two crewmates arrived at the moon three days after leaving Earth. Apollo 8 entered an elliptical orbit that brought the crew as close as 115 miles (185 kilometers) of the lunar surface. On the first of their 10 revolutions, Borman, Lovell and Anders became the first people to see firsthand the far side of the moon and then, while coming out from behind the moon for the fourth time, the first to see in-person "Earthrise."

The famous Earthrise photo from Apollo 8 in 1968, something no one in the world had ever seen. 

Of course, Apollo 8 wasn't Frank Borman's first mission nor was it the first noteworthy thing he had ever accomplished.  

Borman's first spaceflight, which launched three years before Apollo 8, paired him with Lovell, who was also making his first trip into space. The Gemini 7 mission was designed to test and discover the difficulties with keeping a crew in space for as long as the Apollo landing missions were expected to extend.

For two weeks, Borman and Lovell lived together in the cramped confines of their two-seat capsule. The pair evaluated freeze-dried food options, collected medical data on each other and were the first NASA astronauts to doff their pressure suits in-flight, as later Apollo crews would on the way to and from the moon.

James Lovell would fly with Borman again on Apollo 8 - along with William Anders.  

Borman was offered the command of Apollo 11. He turned it down, having already decided that Apollo 8 was going to be his last flight.  In June of 1970, he retired from NASA and after completing Harvard Business School's advanced management program, he joined Eastern Air Lines as its senior vice president for operations. In May 1975, Borman was elected president and chief operating officer of the company.  In December of '75, he became CEO, became chairman of the board one year later, and stayed there for another 10 years.

Whenever I read stories of the NASA astronauts of that era, I think these were all remarkable giants of men.  Rest well, Colonel Borman.  Thanks for everything.

Frank Borman poses for a portrait with a model of the Gemini-Titan II launch vehicle in 1964. (Image credit: NASA)


  1. Yep, seems like our heroes are dying off at a faster pace these days

  2. While the current crop of astronauts are pretty good, they don't have The Right Stuff that the original astronauts had. Pioneers usually are tough. I'm reminded just how steely-mettled Armstrong was in his days. White, Grissom, and Chaffee did their Final Orbit too soon, alas!

  3. Eastern Airlines was based in Miami and while working as a subcontractor to Eastern in Miami I was honored to meet Colonel Borman as he walked the shops. A most polite and honorable man, I only wish America still produced them. Our country is today void of true national heroes and the ones of yesteryear are being defaced and slandered by the Woke and DEI afflicted.