It’s Christmas Eve in 1968, a year of war, assassinations and protests.
A voice crackles on radios across the world.
“From the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, and Merry Christmas—and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.”
Nearly one-third of the world’s population heard those words—the most listened-to words in human history.
The man who spoke them from lunar orbit was Commander Frank Borman, who died this week in Billings, Montana, NASA has announced. At 95, he was the oldest living astronaut—and one of the greatest explorers in human history.
Gemini 7 To Apollo 8
Selected to be an astronaut in 1962, Borman first flew in space in 1965 on NASA’s 14 day Gemini 7 mission before being assigned to Apollo 8, a mission initially designed to orbit the Earth. With just 16 weeks notice it was upgraded to command a mission to fly around the moon 10 times and return safely to Earth.
That mission, with Jim Lovell and Bill Anders, arrived on Christmas Eve and orbited the moon 10 times over 20 hours. It was the first time humans had ever left Earth’s gravitational influence and the first time anyone had seen Earth as a full sphere and the moon’s far side.
Apollo 8 was arguably the most important, daring and dangerous mission NASA ever flew. “When you talk to experts or other Apollo astronauts who were around they speak in reverential tones about Apollo 8—the risk was almost incalculable,” said Robert Kurson, author of Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man’s First Journey to the Moon in an interview in 2018.
During one orbit, Anders snapped the first “Earthrise” photo. “Apollo 8 will probably be remembered as much for Bill’s picture as anything else because it shows the fragility of our Earth, the beauty of Earth, and just how so insignificantly small we are in the universe,” said Borman when I spoke to him in 2018. “I don’t have it hanging up in my house—I have it in my mind.”
Space Exploration vs. Cold War
During our interview, Borman genuinely shocked me. He said he couldn’t care less about space exploration. For him, the Apollo program was all and only about beating the Soviet Union to the moon—and nothing else. “I was there to participate in the Cold War battle with the Soviets,” he told me. Shortly before climbing into the capsule for the 20-day trip around the moon, he told NASA it would be his final mission. His job was either about to be completed or would end in tragedy, probably on Christmas Day.
Borman, you see, had zero interest in walking on the moon. “There was no way on God’s green Earth that I was going to go back to the moon to pick up rocks,” he said.
He may have seen himself as a soldier rather than an explorer, but Borman will nevertheless be remembered as one of the greatest pioneers in human history who risked everything in 1968—even Christmas—for all of us, all of us on the good Earth.
Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.