RIP: Frank Borman, NASA commander of first Moon mission

Former Air Force officer - also involved in first crewed rendezvous in space - dies aged 95

Obit Frank Borman, the NASA astronaut in charge of the first crewed expedition to the Moon, has died at the age of 95.

Although probably best known for commanding Apollo 8 in 1968 in an audacious mission to orbit the Moon on the very first crewed launch of the Saturn V rocket, Borman's first assignment laid the groundwork for subsequent operations with Gemini 7 - the target for the first crewed rendezvous in space.

Borman's NASA career began with his selection for the second group of astronauts, including Neil Armstrong, Jim Lovell, and John Young. The then Chief of the Astronaut Corps, Deke Slayton, described the nine in the book Deke! as "probably the best all-around group ever put together."

Before his selection by NASA, Borman flew for the US Air Force in various roles, including that of test pilot with peers which included Michael Collins, who would go on to fly on Apollo 11.

Gemini 7 was launched at the end of 1965 and was intended to be a long-duration spaceflight to test out processes for managing missions, both on-orbit and on the ground. It sounds grim – the Gemini capsule was famously cramped. At first, NASA managers insisted that one of the crew – comprising Borman and Jim Lovell – always remain in their spacesuit. Borman, being shorter than Lovell, elected to stay in his suit but had a hellish time until managers relented and permitted both the relative luxury of going suitless.

The pair brought books to read as the mission ground on, only enlivened by the arrival of Gemini 6A for a first crewed rendezvous. Gemini 6A had originally been scheduled before Borman's mission in Gemini 7, but a failure of the Agena target vehicle resulted in a change of plans and Gemini 7 would be the target instead. There was talk about having two vehicles dock - something that Slayton wrote Borman was less than keen on. According to Slayton, there was even discussion of having Lovell perform a spacewalk to swap seats with Tom Stafford in 6A.

As it was, managers opted to minimize the strain on Lovell and Borman, who would be 11 days into their mission by that point, by having Gemini 6A fly a rendezvous, using Gemini 7 as the target.

The fluid flightplan experience will have prepared Borman for Apollo 8, which would be the first crewed - with Jim Lovell and William Anders - launch of a Saturn V and, thanks to various factors that included delays in the construction of the Lunar Module and worries about the Soviet space program, would undergo a late change to become the first to orbit the Moon.

Borman was deeply involved in the mission planning, taking a close look at everything from how many orbits around the Moon would be enough orbits through to adding a short test fire of the service propulsion system (SPS) to check all was okay before dropping into lunar orbit.

The mission went relatively well, however, Borman became quite unwell during the journey to the Moon, something Slayton puts down to what was later identified as Space Adaptation Syndrome (SAS). The Apollo capsule was relatively roomy when compared to the Gemini spacecraft, resulting in a risk of disorientation and nausea.

Apollo 8 was to be Borman's last mission for NASA. According to Andrew Chaikin's excellent A Man on the Moon book, he was offered Apollo 11 by Slayton, who felt that as lunar veterans, Borman's crew stood a good chance of success. Borman, however, turned Slayton down and retired from NASA in 1970.

Borman's post-NASA career included a stint at Eastern Air Lines, where he rose to the CEO position during the 1970s.

The Apollo 8 capsule he and his crew took to the Moon and back is currently on display in the Henry Crown Space Center at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. ®

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