Frank Borman, the astronaut who selected the opening passages of Genesis to read during the first manned mission to orbit the moon and concluded the Christmas Eve broadcast by asking God to bless everyone on “the good Earth” 240,000 miles away, died November 7 at the age of 95.
An estimated one billion people listened to the Apollo 8 astronauts read the Creation story in 1968. According to TV Guide, one out of every four humans on Earth turned on a TV the night to see Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders circle 60 miles above the rocky surface of the moon.
The three men were the first to leave Earth’s orbit and reach humanity’s nearest neighbor in space. The awe of the moment was acknowledged with the reading of the first 10 verses of the King James Bible. The words thrilled many, caused a bit of controversy, and confused those who couldn’t see the connection between the greatest scientific adventure of the modern era and an ancient religious text.
Borman, an Episcopal lay reader, said he was just trying to find something “appropriate” for the occasion.
“I’m not a fundamentalist. I don’t believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible; I believe in a liberal interpretation,” he explained to Parade magazine the following year. “And I accept its scriptural message—that God created the earth.”
Like many of the American astronauts in the space race with the Soviet Union, Borman saw the quest to put people on the moon as a scientific and technological test, a patriotic contest, and also something deeply religious. He echoed what others said about the essential spiritual aspect of space exploration.
“I’m not aware of any man that could undertake this kind of journey without some belief,” Borman told reporters. “Or at least I couldn’t.”
Borman was born to Marjorie Ann and Edwin “Rusty” Borman in Gary, Indiana, on March 14, 1928. The family owned a mechanic’s shop and gas station, and Rusty built model planes. As soon as Frank was old enough, his father involved him in the hobby and eagerly encouraged his interest in flying.
The young Borman struggled with sinus infections caused by enlarged adenoids. He underwent several surgeries before he was five, and his family moved to Tucson for his health. Borman learned to fly in Arizona.
He was a star quarterback in high school, taking the Tucson High Badgers to state championship victory in 1946. He went on to the United States Military Academy at West Point, joined the US Air Force, became a fighter pilot and a flight instructor, and then earned a master’s in aeronautical engineering and returned to West Point in 1957 to teach.
There, for the first time, his attention turned to space. That October, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite to orbit the earth. A month later, the Russians launched Sputnik 2, a 1,100-pound spacecraft outfitted with a telemetry system and radio transmitters and carrying a mixed-breed dog from Moscow named Laika. The demonstration of Communist technological prowess shocked Americans, including Borman, who feared the United States had fallen behind in the arms race that would decide the ideological struggle over the fate of the world.
“There was a real Cold War going on back then, and it appeared that the Russians had got a big leg up,” Borman said in an interview for an official NASA history. “To be honest with you, I’d never even thought about rockets or space before. …When they launched Sputnik, it was a real shock to me.”
Borman left the air force and joined NASA. He was assigned to the Gemini 7 and given the mission to orbit the earth for 14 days with copilot Jim Lovell so NASA could measure human endurance, run medical tests, and work out some of the details of spaceflight, like the best ways to package food and what to do with human waste.
In the days before the flight, Borman found himself overwhelmed by the thought he might die in space. He turned to his faith for help. He was raised Episcopalian and remained in the church into adulthood. His Christianity was, by all accounts, simple and faithful. He attended church and prayed regularly, and in the midst of his anxiety, he committed his wife and children to God and asked for the strength to focus on the mission.
“I didn’t want to be a heroic casualty in man’s conquest of space,” he recalled. “I wanted to be a living, breathing husband and father.”
The Gemini 7 ran into several problems during its two-week mission. The astronauts had to deal with failing thrusters and fuel cells. But the spacecraft returned safely to Earth after 206 circuits, plopping down in the Atlantic Ocean. Borman said he realized later everything he cared about was on Earth.
The life-and-death stakes of space travel became painfully clear to everyone two years later, when the Apollo 1 caught fire during prelaunch testing and three astronauts were killed trying to escape the sealed command module. Borman was assigned to the investigative team to determine what went wrong. He stood and looked at the burned-out husk of a spacecraft. He listened to the recording of his colleagues dying in the fire over and over again.
“We’ve got fire in the cockpit.”
“We’ve got a bad fire.”
“Get us out of here now!”
Despite his own concerns, Borman defended the Apollo program to politicians who wanted to kill it, including Walter Mondale and Donald Rumsfeld. He argued that the goal of beating the Russians to the moon was worth the risk.
When it came time for Borman to go to space again, NASA internally estimated the mission had a 50-50 chance of success. Borman’s wife and children did not come to see him launch off in the Apollo 8.
As Borman was preparing for that flight in 1968—a process that included memorizing the 566 switches, 71 lights, and 40 indicators so he could locate each of them while blindfolded—NASA’s deputy public information officer, Julian Scheer, told him he should probably plan something to say while in orbit. The crew was scheduled to broadcast from the moon on Christmas Eve and they were expected to have a large television audience—the largest, in fact, ever listen to a human voice. When Borman asked the public relations professional what he should say in the broadcast, the advice was “something appropriate.”
Borman was impressed the American government wasn’t feeding him propaganda, like he thought the Soviet Union would do if a Communist cosmonaut were the first to reach the moon. But he still didn’t know what to say. Everything he thought of sounded trite.
He asked a Jewish friend named Simon Bourgin for help. Bourgin, a former Newsweek editor who had worked for President Lyndon Johnson, turned to another friend, an official at the Bureau of Budget. He also was stumped by what to say and asked his wife, Christine Laitin, who had been a ballerina and a member of the French Resistance during the Nazi occupation.
Laitin suggested the astronauts “go back to the beginning” and read the Creation account from Genesis. The idea was passed back to Borman. He liked it and wrote it into the mission plan.
On December 24, as a camera showed the lunar surface passing below a window, the three astronauts read the Scripture from a piece of paper. Borman went last, closing with verses 9 and 10: “And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so. And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good.”
Then he said, “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.”
In his retirement on a ranch in Montana, Borman confessed he didn’t actually like the moon that much. Sometimes, he said, he would look up at it and try to feel like people seemed to think he should, but when he was up there, it had just looked desolate, bleak, and lonely. He had no desire to walk on the surface and scoffed at those who dreamed of moon colonies.
The thing that moved Borman, spiritually, was the sight of Earth “rising” from the lunar horizon.
“It was,” he recalled, “the most beautiful, heart-catching sight of my life, one that sent a torrent of nostalgia, of sheer homesickness, surging through me. It was the only thing in space that had any color to it. Everything else was either black or white. But not the Earth.”
The astronaut looked down and, like God, called it good.
Borman was predeceased by his wife, Susan, in 2021. He is survived by sons Frederick and Edwin Borman.