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Apollo astronaut Frank Borman, who first orbited moon, dies at age 95

Apollo 8 crew member Frank Borman speaks during a 2008 NASA TV program at the Newseum in Washington, DC. The former astronauts participated in a discussion on the 1968 lunar orbital mission and how the success of Apollo 8 contributed to the overall moon landing effort.
Alex Wong
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Getty Images
Apollo 8 crew member Frank Borman speaks during a 2008 NASA TV program at the Newseum in Washington, DC. The former astronauts participated in a discussion on the 1968 lunar orbital mission and how the success of Apollo 8 contributed to the overall moon landing effort.

Frank Borman, who commanded two early NASA missions including the first to orbit the moon, has died at age 95. In a statement, NASA said Borman died Nov. 7 in Billings, Mont. after a stroke. His death comes a week after fellow Apollo astronaut, Ken Mattingly, died.

NASA's oldest living astronaut, Borman was best known for his no-nonsense demeanor and said he cared more about beating the Soviet Union in the space race than personal glory.

His discipline and attention to detail are two reasons why NASA selected him to be an astronaut in 1962. He first flew in space in 1965 aboard Gemini 7, a grueling 14-day mission to prove that humans could survive in weightless conditions (in the cramped two-person capsule). Instead of selecting another astronaut with space experience, NASA chose Borman to serve as the mission commander.

NASA administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement Thursday, "In addition to his critical role as commander of the Apollo 8 mission, he is a veteran of Gemini 7, spending 14 days in low-Earth orbit and conducting the first rendezvous in space, coming within a few feet of the Gemini 6 spacecraft."

After the Apollo 1 launch pad fire in 1967, NASA tapped Borman to serve on the investigation board to determine the cause of the accident which killed three astronauts. After that, he headed the team that reengineered the Apollo capsule and allowed NASA to land on the moon in 1969.

Frank Borman (L), commander of 3-man Apollo 8 crew, along with Bill Anders (C) and Jim Lovell (R), on Dec. 21, 1968. They became the first people to circle the moon on Christmas Eve.
/ Associated Press
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ASSOCIATED PRESS
Frank Borman (L), commander of 3-man Apollo 8 crew, along with Jim Lovell (C) and Bill Anders (R), on Dec. 21, 1968. They became the first people to circle the moon on Christmas Eve.

So when it was time for NASA's boldest mission — Apollo 8 — there was little doubt that Borman would command it. It was daring — the first time humans left low-Earth orbit and went to the moon, almost a quarter-million miles away.

The crew of Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders arrived on Christmas Eve 1968 and circled the moon 10 times. The world watched in awe during live TV broadcasts that showed the cratered and forbidding lunar landscape and listened in as the astronauts read a passage from the book of Genesis.

What surprised Borman during the mission was not looking down at the moon. But peering back at the planet. "The Earth was the only thing in the world in the universe that had any color. Everything else was black and white but the earth was beautiful blue and white and brownish continents. That was the most impressive sight for me of the entire flight," Borman remembered.

This mission captured the famous earthrise photo, showing the earth rising above the barren and gray moon.

In a 2018 NPR interview, Frank Borman said so much was riding on the flight and it rested on him, as commander, to make sure nothing went wrong. "My major concern was that somehow the crew would screw up. I didn't want us to be the ones that ... I wanted us to do everything perfectly."

That perfectionist streak was part of Borman's DNA. He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, entered the Air Force, flew fighter jets and became a test pilot. He was never one to stray from a checklist or break the rules.

For Borman, an Air Force colonel, the mission capped a difficult year in U.S. history of political assassinations, racial strife and unrest. "The only telegram I remember out of all the thousands we got after Apollo 8 was, it said thank you Apollo 8 you saved 1968."

Robert Kurson wrote a book on Apollo 8 entitled Rocket Men. He says Borman was a quintessential military officer who believed in one thing: beating the Soviet Union. "To him that's what it was all about. That space was the ultimate battlefield where really the future of war was to be waged," Kurson said, "And he believed their mission was to beat the Soviets who were an existential threat to us at the time."

Borman left NASA after Apollo 8. Unlike other astronauts at the time, he says he never wanted to land on the moon and had no regrets he didn't get the chance. "I could care less about walking on the moon. You know I would have done it if I had the mission but I never had ... in other words it wasn't an emotional thing for me to go step on the moon. But I wanted to be part of the team that beat the Russians," said Borman.

Borman said if he had any regrets about his time in NASA it was how long he was away from family — it averaged 250 days a year.

After NASA, Borman joined Eastern Airlines, eventually becoming its CEO. Borman said he hoped the U.S. would return to the moon one day — and maybe even make it to Mars.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

This Dec. 24, 1968, photo made available by NASA shows the Earth behind the surface of the moon during the Apollo 8 mission.
Bill Anders / AP
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AP
This Dec. 24, 1968, photo made available by NASA shows the Earth behind the surface of the moon during the Apollo 8 mission.

Corrected: November 8, 2023 at 11:00 PM CST
Due to a photo caption error, the order of the Apollo 8 crew was incorrect. The proper order is Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders.
Russell Lewis
As NPR's Southern Bureau chief, Russell Lewis covers issues and people of the Southeast for NPR — from Florida to Virginia to Texas, including West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma. His work brings context and dimension to issues ranging from immigration, transportation, and oil and gas drilling for NPR listeners across the nation and around the world.