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An Evening with 
Col. Frank Borman
30 Years after Apollo 8

by George Arrington



On Saturday evening, December 5, 1998, The National Air and Space Society hosted a lecture by former Gemini and Apollo astronaut, Col. Frank Borman. Nearly thirty years earlier, Borman, along with James Lovell and William Anders became the first humans to visit the environs of the moon aboard their spacecraft, Apollo 8. In celebration and remembrance of that event, Col. Borman gave his talk in the Langley Theater of the National Air and Space Museum. The house was packed!
 
The event opened as everyone entered the Samuel P. Langley theater. The six-story screen, which is normally used for IMAX films such as "To Fly" now held the stunning image of "Earthrise" taken by William Anders on their Apollo 8 flight. This image, above all others from that flight, had come to symbolize the victory of the Apollo 8 mission in 1968. After an introduction by the museum's Director, Admiral Donald D. Engen, Col. Borman took the lecturn and began to recount the history of the space program which led up to this photograph.

"We were at war with the Soviet Union." recalled Col. Borman of the Cold War. Despite the various reasons that people gave for going to the moon, Col. Borman laid it out with no uncertainty that the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were in a battle for the high ground of space. After World War II, it was clear that the new threat to national security came from the Soviet Union. The nuclear menace was made even more clear to people in the U.S. after Sputnik I was launched into orbit. After all, if the Soviets could send a craft into orbit, couldn't they drop an atomic bomb on a U.S. city from space. This was the real fear in America and this fear fueled the space program of the 1950's and 1960's.

In leading the battles of this war, Col. Borman gave a list of several people who were "Generals". Among these were John F. Kennedy, Robert Gilruth, Chris Kraft, Rocco Petrone, and Deke Slayton. These individuals, and many others, provided the necessary leadership and direction to achieve the seemingly impossible task of reaching the lunar surface "before the decade was out."

Col. Borman's lecture was a chronology of the key events that occured on the way to Apollo 8. He pointed out that with today's NASA it would be very difficult to get back to the moon. In the days of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo, things were done much differently. Specifically, the concept of "Go Fever" was prevalent in NASA in those days. If something needed to be done, it got done without the miles of red tape that plague the program today. Col. Borman cited that flight plans could be changed in short order based upon what the Soviets were doing. After Sputnik and Gagarin, the U.S. was clearly behind in the race. After Alexy Leonov walked in space, NASA included an EVA by Ed White on the next U.S. mission, Gemini IV. As the Gemini program progressed, the U.S. began to make strides to take the lead. After EVA, rendezvous and docking, long duration flights (such as Borman and Lovell's 14-day mission of Gemini VII) and working in space was accomplished. The were near disasters (like Gemini VI's launchpad abort and Gemini VIII's stuck thruster) and disappointments (like Gemini IX's "angry alligator"), but the program was a success and led the way for Apollo I.

The maiden voyage of the Apollo command module was slated to launch in February, 1967. The crew selected for this first Apollo flight was Mercury and Gemini veteran Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom, America's first spacewalker, Edward H. White II and rookie astronaut Roger Chaffee. There had been many bugs in the Block I command module, but in January of 1967, it was believed that most of the problems had been solved. On Friday, January 27, 1967 a routine "plugs-out" test was performed with the command module pressurized at over 17 p.s.i. of pure oxygen. The crew had been in the spacecraft for several hours trying to overcome some problems in the communication link. At 6:31 PM, a call of "Fire!" was made to the launch control center. In a matter of seconds, the cockpit, with its pure oxygen atmosphere, became a raging inferno with no chance of the crew to escape. Astronauts Grissom, White and Chaffee perished after being asphyxiated by the dense smoke that filled their suits.
 
An investigation of the Apollo I accident was performed by a board of distinguished individuals. Borman remembered, "I was selected to be one of the people that made up the Accident Review Board." He was tasked to head the committee which dismantled the spacecraft, looking for clues of how the fire started. In the course of that of their investigation, defects in workmanship were found but ultimately Borman said, "We simply looked at the fact that the spacecraft was very dangerous at 100% oxygen atmopshere." After the investigation and subsequent congressional hearings, NASA's efforts were redoubled to make Kennedy's end of the decade deadline. It seemed that we were hopelessly behind in the race, but then came the disaster of Soyuz I. In the first mission of the Soviet Soyuz space vehicle, Cosmonaut Vladimir Komorov was killed when his parachutes became tangled and crashed into the ground. Through this tragedy, it appeared that there might be a change to get back in the race.

In October, 1967, the U.S. space program got back on track with the successful 10-day mission of Apollo 7 with Wally Schirra, Walter Cunnungham and Donn Eisele. It also appeared that the Soviet Union was getting back on track as well. Intelligence photos indicated that the Soviet Union was getting ready to launch its huge N-1 booster. This could only mean that they were close to making a try for the moon. According to NASA plans, there would be a test of the Lunar Module in earth orbit with Jim McDivitt's crew and then tested again in high earth orbit with Borman's crew  before trying a translunar mission. Since the LM was behind schedule, the next mission would not occur until the spring of 1969. Borman recounted that the LM delays coupled with the CIA reports on the pending Soviet lunar mission caused NASA to change their plans. In a bold move, NASA switched the order of the McDivitt and Borman flights and decided to make Apollo 8 a lunar orbit mission without the LM. In late December, 1968, Borman, Lovell and Anders became the first humans to enter lunar orbit. On their 10-orbit stay, they mapped and photographed potential landing sites for future missions. More importantly, according to Borman, we had won the race to the moon. The additional 69 miles to the surface, while technically challenging, was less important to winning the space race. Apollo 8 had paved the way for Apollo 11 to touchdown on the Sea of Tranquility in July, 1969, thus achieving President Kennedy's 1961 national challenge.
 
After his lecture, Col. Borman received a standing ovation from the crowd. He also fielded a number of questions from the audience. Some of the questions dealt with his two spaceflights, but others asked about his feelings of the current state of affair within NASA. Borman expressed concern that safety of the Shuttle program is still in doubt and that the probabilities are high that another accident may occur. He cited examples from the frightening new book, Dragonfly : NASA and the Crisis Aboard the Mir by Bryan Burrough.

Borman also graciously stayed and signed autographs in the center gallery of the museum. Among the Apollo 11 command module, the Wright Flyer, the Spirit of St. Louis, and many other milestone artifacts of aviation and space, hundreds of people stood in line to have memorabilia. There were photographs, old issues of Life magazine and even baseballs!

As a long-time observer of the space program, I appreciated Col. Borman's talk and candid comments. He was not reticent to point out deficiencies with the programs of yesterday and today. As someone who had been there, he was able to provide authoritative, first-hand testimony of the way things really happened.


Text and photographs Copyright © 1999, George E. Arrington III

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