Frank Borman, Tucson High grad & astronaut hero who led first manned orbits of moon, dies at 95

Frank Borman, commander of the first manned mission to orbit the moon, died Tuesday in Billings, Montana. He was 95.

He and the crew of Apollo 8 laid the groundwork for the first human landings and broadcast from space on Christmas Eve 1968 to what was then the largest audience in human history.

Borman was born in Gary, Indiana, but his family moved to Tucson to help with his sinus condition. He attended Tucson High School, where he was quarterback of the football team playing alongside future Arizona business titan Karl Eller for legendary coach Rollin Gridley. He was a bench player, but ended up starting some games because of an injury to the quarterback (future Cleveland Indians player Lee Carey). His teams in 1944 and 1945 were undefeated and, with no state tournament in those years, declared champions.

Borman had been an avid model airplane builder. He set his eyes on a career in aviation, but the University of Arizona didn’t have a strong program in aeronautical engineering at the time. He was planning to join the Army in the hopes of eventually qualifying for the GI Bill so he could afford college.

His father had a different idea and contacted Richard Harless, then Arizona’s sole representative in Congress, about an appointment to West Point. It took some convincing, as well as some other aspirants dropping out, but Borman got the appointment.

He graduated in 1950, eighth in his class. In the days before the Air Force had its own academy, they would accept a number of West Point graduates and he had his commission as a second lieutenant. He returned to Tucson to marry Susan Bugbee, then a UA student. They married at St. Phillips in the Hills Church before taking his first Air Force assignment.

His early career in the Air Force included time as a fighter pilot, instructor and test pilot. In 1962, he was selected for a group of astronaut candidates. His commander at Edwards Air Force Base, the irascible Chuck Yaeger, chided him that he could “kiss his goddamn Air Force career goodbye.”

After being the backup on an earlier Gemini mission, Borman was selected as the commander on Gemini 7, the 1965 mission that NASA used to test longer-duration spaceflight. The 14-day mission included a rendezvous with Gemini 6.

‘This
must be what God sees’

Three years later he had his most storied mission. Apollo 8 paired him off again with his Gemini 7 partner Jim Lovell along with William Anders. The December 1968 mission was the first crewed spacecraft to leave low Earth orbit and the first human spaceflight to reach the moon. The trio of astronauts were the first humans to see the far side of the moon, and the first to witness an Earthrise.

The mission included 10 orbits around the moon, which took 68 hours to reach. Laying the groundwork for the moon landings the following year, Apollo 8 spent 20 hours circling the moon, and safely returned. The crew did a broadcast from lunar orbit on Christmas Eve which included readings from the Book of Genesis.

As about one-quarter of the world’s population tuned in, Borman told listeners that the moon was a “a vast, lonely, forbidding expanse of nothing.”

“And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas and God bless all of you—all of you on the good Earth,” he said, after the crew had each read portions of the creation story from the Bible.

The following day, Borman read a prayer that was transmitted to Earth.

Give us, O God, the vision which can see Your love in the world in spite of human failure.
Give us the faith to trust Your goodness in spite of our ignorance and weakness.
Give us the knowledge that we may continue to pray with understanding hearts.
And show us what each one of us can do to set forward the coming of the day of universal peace.

Borman later wrote of seeing the Earth from space: “We were the first humans to see the world in its majestic totality, an
intensely emotional experience for each of us. We said nothing to each
other, but I was sure our thoughts were identical — of our families on
that spinning globe. And maybe we shared another thought I had, ‘This
must be what God sees.'”

“Frank knew the power exploration held in uniting humanity when he said, ‘Exploration is really the essence of the human spirit,’” said NASA administrator Bill Nelson in a statement on his death. “His service to NASA and our nation will undoubtedly fuel the Artemis Generation to reach new cosmic shores.”

Borman retired from the Air Force in 1970. His post-NASA career included being chairman of Eastern Airlines, a board member of the National Geographic Society and eventually a cattle rancher in Montana.

Tucson hero

Three schools are named for Borman, including the one on Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. In another honor, of sorts, Borman ended up on the cover of Led Zeppelin II. The artist thought he was putting Neil Armstrong’s face on that of a German pilot. It was Borman’s. There is at least one example online of someone who got Borman to sign the cover.

Borman was in the first group of five inducted into the Tucson High School Hall of Fame in 1982. His photo is in a place of honor in the school’s lobby.

Even though Borman moved from Houston to Miami to New Mexico and Montana, he considered Tucson his hometown. He made frequent visits here. 

Even into the last decade, he would come out to make an appearance at the Pima Air and Space Museum or talk to local schools. He also gave the commencement address to the 2008 University of Arizona graduating class. According to a news release from the university, he had praise for the school’s involvement with the Phoenix mission and the leadership of the school in the space program.

Borman’s wife Susan died in 2021. He is survived by sons Fred and Edwin, and their families.