Col. Frank Frederick Borman II, March 14, 1928 – November 7, 2023
Col. Frank Frederick Borman II in a formal 1964 NASA portrait. (NASA photo S64- 31456).
Colonel Frank Frederick Borman (USAF, ret.), West Point Class of 1950, commanded the crew of the December 1968 Apollo 8 lunar orbital mission, after being Commander of the 14 day, long duration Gemini 7 Mission in December 1965. Frank was a extraordinary astronaut and patriot. He also was a no-nonsense Spacecraft Commander.
Astronauts Frank Borman (CDR) and James A. Lovell (pilot) aboard Gemini 7 photographed by Thomas P. Stafford (pilot) from Gemini 6A commanded by Astronaut Walter M. Schirra, Jr. on Dec. 15, 1965, during the first close rendezvous and station keeping of two individual spacecraft. (NASA photo S65-63194).
Astronaut Frank Borman examines the Gemini 7 capsule during a weight and balance pre-flight test at Kennedy Space Center, Merritt Island on Oct. 25, 1965. Borman is crouching near the pilot hatch. (NASA photo S65-56205).
The selection of Frank as Commander of Apollo 8 in August 1968 was unexpected for him and everybody else. His new assignment came after originally being scheduled to command a 1969 Apollo Earth-orbit mission that would include a second series of tests of the Lunar Module. This test mission was planned to follow that Commanded by Jim McDivitt. Mid-summer of 1968, however, saw Apollo management working to maintain program momentum after the tragic, January 1967 fire in the Apollo 1 (AS-204) Command Module took the lives of Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee. Frank became directly involved in investigating this terrible management failure when he was chosen to represent the Astronaut Office on the AS-204 Accident Review Board.
George Low, appointed to head of the Apollo Spacecraft Program Office after the fire, faced two main challenges in re-establishing Apollo’s momentum. The most recent all-up test of the Saturn V booster had disclosed a significant problem with vibration in the rocket’s fuel lines. Also, the development of the Lunar Module at the Grumman Aircraft Corporation had fallen a half year behind schedule, adding six months to the delay after the fire. Additionally, on the geopolitical front, there were indications that the Soviet Union was preparing to try a crewed lunar fly-by in 1968.
In the face of all of these issues, Low made two critical decisions. First, he sent Frank to California-based North American Rockwell Corporation to oversee the redesign of the Apollo Command and Service Module in which overlooked design flaws had led to the 204 fire. Second, Low proposed in early August of 1968 that a redesigned Command and Service Module (AS-206) be flown into lunar orbit in late December, contingent only on a successful, 11 day Apollo 7 test of the redesigned spacecraft (AS-205) in Earth-orbit, scheduled for October. The combination of these decisions would restore the momentum and schedule to land on the Moon “before the end of the decade,” as set by President Kennedy.
Low spent the month of August convincing his superiors of the wisdom of his plan for a lunar orbit mission while the boss of the astronauts, Deke Slayton, determined who would crew the December mission to lunar orbit. Jim McDivitt and his crew of Dave Scott and Rusty Schweickart obviously were in line for the assignment; however, to his great credit, Jim declined, unwilling to waste the year and a half effort his crew had made preparing for the first test of a Lunar Module in space. Frank, with Jim Lovell and Mike Collins, thus got the nod for Apollo 8 (Due to a temporary medical issue, Mike was soon replaced by Bill Anders, but Collins re-entered the crew selection process to fly as Command Module Pilot on Apollo 11, the first lunar landing.)
Apollo 8 prime crew Frank Borman (CDR, left), William A. Anders (LMP, center), and James A. Lovell (CMP, right) at the hatchway of the Apollo Command Module simulator at the Cape on Nov. 21, 1968. (NASA photo 68-HC-731).
Frank and his crew immediately moved their training activities from the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston to the “Cape” in Florida (Kennedy Space Center), where the most up-to-date Apollo simulators were located. Frank, Jim and Bill had only four months to prepare for the most remarkable adventure in human history up to then. Home became the KSC Crew Quarters and the Simulator Building.
Apollo 8 CDR Frank Borman suiting up on launch day, Dec. 21, 1968. (NASA photo KSC-68PC-321).
Before he left for the Cape, Frank asked me if I would develop and manage their flight plan for 10 lunar orbits. Agreeing to this request immediately put me into a four month, weekly routine of interacting with the legendary Bill Tindall’s flight planning activities in Chris Kraft’s Flight Operations Directorate; flying a T-38 late in the evening over the Gulf to the Cape; getting Frank’s critique of the most recent flight plan draft; spending a day working with Lovell and Anders on their lunar orbit tasks; flying back the next day to Houston to coordinate Frank’s inputs with Tindall; and then starting the sequence again.
As preparations for the mission ramped up, “Mission Sims” began to become more frequent. These simulations put Frank and his crew in direct contact with Mission Control, led for Apollo 8 by Flight Directors Cliff Charlesworth, Glynn Lunney, and Milt Windler and manipulated by the diabolical SimSup (Simulation Supervisor). The results of these simulations produced inputs from Frank and others for revisions of the lunar orbit flight plan, as various conflicts in the relentless timeline were addressed. In the back of everyone’s mind, however, was knowledge of the primary risk to the mission: Apollo 8 would have no Lunar Module propulsion systems to back up the Service Module’s rocket (SPS). Only with the Apollo 13 emergency in 1970 did it become clear outside of NASA just how big a risk Frank, Jim and Bill and the Apollo Program were taking.
Wally Schirra’s, Don Eisele’s, and Walt Cunningham’s highly successful Apollo 7 flight in October proved out the fine work Frank and hundreds of others did in redesigning the Command and Service Module, and Apollo 8 launched on schedule, December 21st. Other than an oscillation in the thrust of the Saturn second stage center engine forcing its early cutoff, and the sunlit Earth being too bright for the low-light level, b&w television camera, the mission proceeded as planned. Besides its geopolitical implications, its demonstration of the feasibility of lunar orbit operations, and Bill’s iconic photograph of a rising Earth from behind the Moon, Jim’s demonstration of lunar landmark tracking from orbit was the most important technical contribution of Frank’s mission. Hand tracking of small lunar craters with the Command Module’s star-sighting telescope would be an essential part of navigation to pinpoint landings required to expand lunar science on future Apollo missions.
Astronaut Anders’ iconic “Earthrise” photo taken on Dec. 24, 1968 as the CSM appeared from around the lunar farside providing this view of the Earth above the lunar horizon. The crew were the first humans to witness this event. (NASA photo AS8-14-2383).
More than Apollo 11, Apollo 8 became “The Mission” for many of us involved, particularly those in Mission Control. We never expected to do it, and it succeeded in every respect. The geopolitical challenge had been largely answered.
Frank Borman’s Apollo 8 mission also became memorable for hundreds of millions around the world in that Frank, Jim and Bill celebrated Christmas in orbit around the Moon by reading to those millions the verses from the Book of Genesis on the 9th orbit. (To view and listen to an upgraded 3:45 min recording of this historic reading, please visit Colin Mackellar’s compilation at https://vimeo.com/248618186/).
Those of us on the Apollo 8 support crew included three miniatures of brandy in the Christmas dinner Frank’s crew would find on their fish line of meals coming out of the food locker in the lower equipment bay of the Command Module. Not a good idea, as Frank pointed out to Jim and Bill when the meal was opened. “Brandy” when you are 238,000 miles from home? “Not hardly,” as John Wayne would put it!
An Apollo spaceflight tradition, of sorts, was started on Christmas Eve, when a flight controller handed me a paraphrasing of the poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” by Clement Clarke Moore. After clearing it with Flight (Glynn Lunney), I read the revised poem up to the Apollo 8 crew. I began, “T’was the night before Christmas, and way out in space, the Apollo 8 crew had just won the Moon race…”. In honor of that tradition, on my last morning on the Moon on December 14th, 1972, I transmitted back to Earth another version of Moore’s poem, “It’s the Week before Christmas and all through the LM…”, composed in memory as I lay awake during the rest period before leaving Taurus-Littrow.
Frank Borman addressing the crew of the U.S.S. Yorktown after splashdown and recovery of the Apollo 8 crew on Dec. 27, 1968. (NASA photo 68-HC-883).
As a final, personal note, Frank and I both received degrees from Caltech in 1957 with Frank’s being a Masters in aeronautical engineering. To my knowledge, our paths never crossed during our joint time at Caltech. Nine years later, however, that all had changed.
Copyright © by Harrison H. Schmitt, 2023, All rights reserved.