Frank Borman was one of the great explorers of the 20th century. As commander of Apollo 8, he was one of the first three humans to leave low Earth orbit, travel into deep space, and orbit the Moon. Yet exploring space was not his dream. An Air Force officer, patriot, and ardent Cold Warrior, he wanted to beat the Soviet Union in the Moon race and played a central role in making that happen.

Former NASA astronaut Frank Borman.

Prior to his historic December 1968 spaceflight, he had taken a leading role in investigating the disastrous fire that had killed the first Apollo crew on the launch pad in January 1967. The resulting top-to-bottom overhaul of the Apollo command module made it possible to achieve President Kennedy’s lunar-landing goal in five straight human missions between October 1968 and July 1969. Earlier, in 1965, he had commanded Gemini VII, which proved that astronauts could tolerate two weeks in weightlessness, the longest possible Apollo expedition to the Moon. His spacecraft was also the target vehicle for Gemini VI-A in the world’s first space rendezvous.

The crew of Gemini VII: James Lovell, pilot (left), and Frank Borman, command pilot (right).

As we mourn his passing, the astronaut parts of his career are being well remembered, but few NASA astronauts accumulated so much experience in all aspects of aviation. Borman was a first-rate jet fighter pilot and test pilot like many of his compatriots, but he also became a leader in the airline industry. Within a half-dozen years of retiring from NASA and the Air Force in 1970, he was CEO and Chairman of the Board of Eastern Air Lines. He fought energetically to save the airline from the mountain of debt it had accumulated and even brought it to profitability for a time. He was also a lifelong aircraft modeler and was later recognized for it by the Academy of Model Aeronautics. Later in life, when he lived in New Mexico and Montana, he was an honored member of the warbird community. He painstakingly rebuilt and flew a Bell P-63 Kingcobra, a World War II fighter primarily flown by Soviet pilots through Lend-Lease. His aircraft won the Grand Champion Warbird award at the Oshkosh air show in 1998.

In our Museum, he will long be remembered for a 40th anniversary Apollo 8 event in our Lockheed Martin IMAX Theater. Along with his crewmates Jim Lovell and Bill Anders, he gave one of the most memorable eyewitness accounts of the heroic era of human spaceflight I have ever experienced, and as a curator, I had the privilege of having seen many. His Gemini VII spacecraft is featured in our new Destination Moon gallery, as is a giant mural of the world-famous Earthrise picture taken by Anders on Apollo 8. His command module from that mission is in Chicago, on loan from us to the Museum of Science and Industry. Frank Borman was a giant of the early human space program and will not soon be forgotten.

Apollo 8 commander Frank Borman preparing for launch.

Michael Neufeld retired in 2023. He was lead curator of Destination Moon and had long tended the collection of Mercury and Gemini spacecraft. 

Related Topics Spaceflight Human spaceflight Apollo program Moon (Earth)
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