Commander of first Apollo mission to moon dead at 95

Astronaut Frank Borman, who commanded Apollo 8’s historic Christmas 1968 flight that circled the moon 10 times and paved the way for the lunar landing the following year, has died at age 95.

Borman, who NASA said died Tuesday in Billings, Montana, also led troubled Eastern Airlines in the 1970s and early ’80s after leaving the astronaut corps.

But he was best known for his NASA duties. He and his crew, James Lovell and William Anders, were the first Apollo mission to fly to the moon, the first manned flight to circle the moon, and the first to see earth as a distant sphere in space.

“Today we remember one of NASA’s best. Astronaut Frank Borman was a true American hero,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement on Thursday.

“His lifelong love for aviation and exploration was only surpassed by his love for his wife Susan.”

Launched from Florida’s Cape Canaveral on December 21, 1968, the Apollo 8 trio spent three days travelling to the moon, and slipped into lunar orbit on Christmas Eve.

After they circled 10 times on December 24-25, they headed home on December 27.

On Christmas Eve, the astronauts read from the Book of Genesis in a live telecast from the orbiter: “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.”

Borman ended the broadcast with, “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.”

Lovell and Borman had previously flown together during the two-week Gemini 7 mission, which launched on December 4, 1965 – and, at only 36 metres apart, completed the first space orbital rendezvous with Gemini 6.

In his book, Countdown: An Autobiography, Borman said Apollo 8 was originally supposed to orbit earth.

The success of Apollo 7’s mission in October 1968 to show system reliability on long-duration flights made NASA decide it was time to take a shot at flying to the moon.

But Borman said there was another reason NASA changed the plan: the agency wanted to beat the Russians.

It was on the crew’s fourth orbit that Anders snapped the iconic “Earthrise” photo showing a blue and white earth rising above the grey lunar landscape.

Borman wrote about how the earth looked from afar: “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.”

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