1928 – 2023

Frank Borman, a NASA astronaut who commanded Apollo 8, the first crewed mission to orbit the moon and return safely to Earth, and later as chief executive of Eastern Air Lines piloted the carrier through a turbulent business climate that led to its takeover and eventual demise, died Nov. 7 at a medical center in Billings, Mont. He was 95.

The cause was a stroke, said family spokesman Jim McCarthy. Mr. Borman, who lived at a retirement community in Billings, died one week after fellow astronaut Ken Mattingly, who helped bring Apollo 13 home following an onboard explosion.

Mr. Borman became America’s oldest living former astronaut after the 2016 death of John Glenn, one of the seven original astronauts in NASA’s Mercury program.

Frank Frederick Borman II was born in Gary, Ind., on March 14, 1928. He suffered from breathing trouble, and the Bormans relocated to Tucson in the hope that the dry desert air would improve the health of their only child.

He would later recall “a halcyon existence,” capturing Gila monsters and walking downtown to watch movie westerns on Saturdays. He excelled in school, became quarterback of the Tucson High School football team and met Susan Bugbee, his future wife, during his senior year.

Mr. Borman built model planes in childhood and, as a teenager, worked odd jobs to earn money for flight lessons.

In 1950, the year he married, he graduated eighth in his class at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering from the California Institute of Technology in 1957.

The “last thing I ever wanted to be was a professional astronaut,” Mr. Borman told the NASA oral historian. Invoking the baseball Hall of Fame pitcher, he added: “I just try never to look back. Like Satchel Paige said: Somebody might be gaining on you if you look back.”

After graduating near the top of his U.S. Military Academy class, Mr. Borman became an Air Force test pilot of supersonic jet fighters. He once refused to eject from an F-104 fighter whose engine failed at twice the speed of sound, instead managing to steady the plane until it recovered power. He won an award for flight safety.

“With delicious irony,” he wrote in his 1988 memoir, “Countdown,” “they also gave the award to another pilot for not restarting his engine under almost the same circumstances. He had bailed out instead, and the investigators found that if he had restarted his engine, he would have blown the plane into five million pieces.”

In 1962, Mr. Borman was one of nine men tapped for NASA’s second astronaut corps and served as command pilot of two NASA missions that laid essential groundwork for the 1969 moon landing.

During the December 1965 flight of Gemini 7, he and astronaut James A. Lovell Jr. set an endurance record in space. They spent two uncomfortable weeks orbiting the Earth in what Mr. Borman later described as a capsule the size of “the front seat of a Volkswagen.”

Under nonstop medical monitoring, the men put up with boredom, heat and unsanitary conditions, even sharing a toothbrush for part of the mission. Lovell joked afterward that he and Mr. Borman had decided to get engaged.

In space, Gemini 7 got within six feet of the crewed Gemini 6, proving that NASA could perform the rendezvous maneuvers needed in lunar missions. Until Mr. Borman’s and Lovell’s orbiting medical experiment, space historian Andrew Chaikin said in an interview, NASA wasn’t sure that humans could survive such a long trip in space.

Mr. Borman and Lovell were rewarded with leadership roles on Apollo 8. The mission had been planned to orbit Earth, but intelligence reports that the Soviets were readying a crewed mission around the moon led NASA to change its plan, sending Mr. Borman, Lovell and crewmate William Anders more than 230,000 miles away from Earth and to orbit the moon 10 times.

It was a bold gamble for the space agency and for the three astronauts, who became the first humans to leave Earth’s gravitational field and the first to orbit the moon. Anders snapped an iconic photograph, known as “Earthrise,” showing the planet’s dawn above the lunar horizon.

Mr. Borman coordinated the Apollo 8 crew’s live Christmas Eve message, during which the three astronauts read from the first 10 verses of Genesis, their television camera trained through the capsule’s window, toward the moon.

“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 in the broadcast’s final moments.

“Earth looked so lonely in the universe. It’s the only thing with color,” he said years later, of that Christmas Eve. “All of our emotions were focused back there with our families as well. So that was the most emotional part of the flight for me.”

After Apollo 8, Mr. Borman joined NASA administration as deputy director of flight crew operations. He retired from the military and the space agency in 1970. 

After leaving NASA, Mr. Borman became vice president at Eastern and, in 1976, was named chief executive. “The Colonel,” as Eastern employees called him for his Air Force rank, banned alcohol at events for corporate executives and did away with other perks for senior managers. He drove a battered 1969 Chevy convertible to work, setting an example of thriftiness.

He resigned in 1986, after Eastern — the country’s third-largest carrier — was acquired by low-cost Texas Air for $676 million. 

Borman’s wife died in 2021. Survivors include two sons, Frederick and Edwin Borman; four grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.

Published in the Washington Post