Frank Borman, who died last Tuesday at the age of 95, had a long and storied career. He graduated from West Point and served a dozen years in the Air Force before joining the astronaut corps in 1962.
Borman served as the sole astronaut member of the review board after the disastrous Apollo 1 launch fire that claimed the lives of three astronauts and insisted on critical changes that helped put the “race to the Moon” back on track. Following his stint in the astronaut corps, he became CEO of Eastern Air Lines for more than a decade.
But one event above all earned Frank Borman his place in history.
On Christmas Eve 55 years ago, he participated in not just one of the world’s most-watched broadcasts, but one of the most memorable. And amid the turmoil that plagues our country and world today, nearly three scores later, the spirit of that moment remains inspiring and provides a sense of priority and purpose.
Begin at the Beginning
“Say something appropriate.”
This was the only guidance that NASA official Julian Scheer gave Borman upon telling him that his crew’s Christmas Eve broadcast from lunar orbit would probably have the largest television audience in human history.
Borman originally didn’t want to bring cameras on board his Apollo 8 spacecraft, thinking it a distraction from the mission. But as he later observed, he “was overruled, rightfully so, because after all, the American people deserved to see what they were getting for their money.”
While training for the mission — the first in which humans left Earth’s orbit and ventured to another celestial body — Borman consulted Sy Bourgin, an official with the U.S. Information Agency he knew from a prior goodwill tour, about what to say during the Christmas Eve broadcast. Bourgin asked United Press reporter Joe Laitin, who in turn asked his wife. Somehow, the string of “telephone” led to an inspired choice; more surprising still, no NASA bureaucrat managed to muck it up.
Laitin’s wife’s suggestion resulted in a moment from the heavens that touched millions on Earth when the Apollo 8 astronauts started reading from Genesis 1:
The reading from the book of Genesis brought Borman’s wife, Susan, among many others, to tears. Bill Anders, who began the reading, said that “to me it was not a religious thing, so much as it was a kind of a hard hit to the psychological solar plexus, that would help mark to humankind the gravity — so to speak — of man’s first departure from his home planet.” (Borman later quipped that the true miracle was getting Anders, who was raised Catholic, to read from the King James Bible.)
Regardless, the broadcast made a splash. In the last week of 1968, the Associated Press had to conduct a second ballot for its story of the year — and Apollo 8 knocked the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy from the top perch.
Another famous telegram sent to the astronauts put it more succinctly: “You saved 1968.”
Man’s Better Angels
It would serve the nation and the world well to recall from Borman’s death the message broadcast from Apollo 8. Now — as then — strife at home and bloody wars abroad have sapped America’s vitality and much of the free world’s energy with it. But focusing on a larger cause — a religious one to some, and to others a sense of awe at the scope and scale of the universe — can put daily squabbles in perspective.
The famous “Earthrise” photograph Anders took on the Apollo 8 mission also conveyed this message, speaking to the fragility of our mortal existence in the vast reaches of space.
The Christmas Eve broadcast of Apollo 8 echoed some of the deepest American traditions that predate the nation’s founding. In 1630, Massachusetts Gov. John Winthrop spoke of his colony as a “city upon a hill,” a motif to which Ronald Reagan returned on numerous occasions during his presidency. And at its core, the Apollo 8 broadcast followed this same motif; as one writer observed, astronauts Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders had “a glorious opportunity to brag, and instead chose to pray, finding words that would include as many people as possible in the message.” In so doing, Frank Borman provided an example and a lesson for all Americans today.
Here’s hoping we can follow it.