And it turns out Emmanuel had done these very long, multi-day interviews with each of the three astronauts. He sent me raw recordings. And listening through, I heard something I was not expecting at all.Frank Borman reminds me so much of my father. Pragmatic. Goal Oriented. Clear on his priorities. To call him uncomplicated sounds like an insult. Refined perhaps. All the dross and noise and posturing and superflousness vaporized away. What is left is a good man.
One of the astronauts, Frank Borman, was saying things I had just never heard an astronaut say. Like this--
Frank Borman Space science fiction still bores me. I've never seen-- what's the name of that-- that very popular--David Kestenbaum Emmanuel, the filmmaker, also seemed amused. He pressed on. What about when you were a kid?
Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee 2001?
Frank Borman Yeah, all that crap. I've never seen any of that.
Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee And what about the stars or astronomy?David Kestenbaum Susan is Borman's wife. They fell in love in high school. Borman was game to answer any question Emmanuel put to him, though he particularly seemed to like the ones he could easily dispatch answers to, like a little problem he had solved.
Frank Borman No.
Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee None of that?
Frank Borman Airplanes.
Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee Airplanes, and airplanes only.
Frank Borman Airplanes, and airplanes only.
Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee Wow. Wow.
Frank Borman And a certain particular girl.
Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee Susan.
Frank Borman Yeah. So--
We sat down in a little conference room. I'd half wondered if we should use our time together to watch 2001-- A Space Odyssey. I thought if he actually saw it, he might like it. But it's a long film. I went with something shorter.
David Kestenbaum Can I show you something and see if it speaks to you at all?David Kestenbaum He really did. When Borman became an astronaut, only eight people had ever been into space. Apollo 8-- the mission he was commander of-- it was the very first time humans had ever left Earth's orbit.
Frank Borman Star Trek. Yeah, that's what I was-- I've never seen that.
Star Trek Narrator Space, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise--
David Kestenbaum I looked at Borman as he watched, but I couldn't read his expression.
Star Trek Narrator --to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.
Frank Borman Nonsense to me. I-- it doesn't interest me. I'm sorry.
David Kestenbaum To go where no man has gone before, that doesn't do anything for you?
Frank Borman No.
David Kestenbaum But you did it.
Frank Borman [LAUGHS]
Borman and the two other crew members in this tiny spacecraft went all the way to the moon. They didn't land. It was kind of a dry run for the moon landing.
But in some ways, it actually seems more exciting to me and terrifying. It was the first time anyone had gone that far from the earth, really ventured out into space, seeing the moon so close up. This other celestial body right there, outside the window. He was 40 years old.
How did Borman-- the guy who didn't really care about space-- end up being one of the first people to go to the moon? It's true. This was the beginning of the space program, and a lot of the early astronauts were test pilots.
But still, the other two guys Borman flew with-- they were the type of people who might have gone to space camp as kids. If space camp had existed back then.
One of them, Bill Anders, loved geology. As a kid, he had decided he wanted to own a piece of every rock in the world. The other, Jim Lovell, while in high school, had tried to build a model rocket, one powered by liquid oxygen.
Frank Borman Lovell was mesmerized by space and exploration, and wanted desperately to explore the moon. I was there because it was a battle in the Cold War. I wanted to participate in this American adventure of beating the Soviets. But that's the only thing that motivated me-- beat the damn Russians.[snip]
Borman was an Air Force pilot who'd gone to West Point. He had a reputation for being blunt, and also kind of serious. He didn't like anyone messing around.
He'd never been in battle, but he thought this is where the real fight is now. So he applied to be an astronaut. The psychiatrist who evaluated him later said Borman was the least complicated man he had ever met.
David Kestenbaum What do you think he meant by that?[snip]
Frank Borman I don't-- I have no idea. I have no idea. I don't-- whether I'm complicated or uncomplicated.
David Kestenbaum What would Susan say?
Frank Borman Susan says this. I was the most uncomplicated man she ever knew.
David Kestenbaum Are you a romantic person?
Frank Borman I think in some ways I am. I get emotional at good movies at times, and things like that.
David Kestenbaum What movies do you watch?
Frank Borman Probably the best movie that I've ever seen is Casablanca. I love Casablanca.
David Kestenbaum Why do you like Casablanca?
Frank Borman Casablanca was a wonderful wartime story of the recognition that a good cause is more important than the human being relationship.
David Kestenbaum Oh.
Frank Borman Win the war and lose the woman was what that was all about.
David Kestenbaum That's the opposite of romantic.
Frank Borman No, it's very romantic.
David Kestenbaum I wasn't going to play you the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 tape, but then I listened back to it. It's pretty good. It's like you can hear how big the thing is.He said his main observation about being in zero g was just the obvious thing. When you let go of something in midair, it would stay there.
One of the astronauts said it felt like being a rat in the jaws of a big terrier.
Man We have ignition sequence start. The engines are on. 4, 3, 2, 1, 0-- we have connect. We have--
Man Lift off. The clock is running.
Man We have lift off.
Man [INAUDIBLE] looking good.
David Kestenbaum OK, so after the launch-- and please, don't feel compelled to answer yes to any of these questions, you know.
Frank Borman Oh, I won't. I'mma tell you the truth. OK.
David Kestenbaum Was it cool to float around weightless?
Frank Borman [LAUGHS] No.
David Kestenbaum I think everyone thinks it would be amazing to be weightless and floating.
Frank Borman Turn loose of this and it would stay there. Except when turning loose of it, you'd probably impart a little motion to it so it would float around. But--[snip]
David Kestenbaum Was that interesting to observe?
Frank Borman Maybe for the first 30 seconds, then it became accepted.
David Kestenbaum Borman says there was really just one moment where he felt something stir in his uncomplicated self. It happened while they were circling the moon, which as a destination, he says, did not look like a place you would ever want to live or work.
Frank Borman Oh, devastation. Meteor craters, no color at all. Just different shades of gray.David Kestenbaum And then peering out the small windows, over the gray landscape of the moon, they saw something coming up over the horizon. It was the earth, and it was beautiful. This blue and white marble, the only thing that had any color. Here's how he described it to Emmanuel, the filmmaker.
Frank Borman It's 240,000 miles away. It was small enough you could cover it with your thumbnail. The dearest things in life that were back on the Earth-- my family, my wife, my parents. They were still alive then. That was, for me, the high point of the flight from an emotional standpoint.David Kestenbaum It's like the high point of being in space was the Earth.
Frank Borman The contrast between our memories of the Earth and the color on the Earth, and the totally bleak and dead moon was striking.
David Kestenbaum They'd been taking hundreds of photos of the surface of the moon, because, you know, no one had ever been there. NASA wanted to pick out a future landing site.
They took so many photos of the moon that Bill Anders, the astronaut who was doing it, said it got boring. There was nothing in the mission plan to take pictures of the Earth. It's like it hadn't even occurred to anyone it might look interesting.
But Borman and the crew, when they saw the Earth rising over the moon, they were like, whoa, that is a photo. There's actually audio of this moment.
Bill Anders Oh, my god. Look at that picture over there. There's the Earth coming up. Wow, that's pretty!David Kestenbaum That's Borman there, saying, don't take that. It's not scheduled. He was joking.
Frank Borman Hey, don't take that. It's not scheduled.
Frank Borman Hand me a roll of color quick, would you?David Kestenbaum It ended up being one of the most famous photos of all time. If you Google "Earth rise," you'd be like, oh, yeah. That one.
Bill Anders Oh, man this [INAUDIBLE].
It's like the first selfie of us all, the whole planet, and it's remarkable. It's exactly other worldly. Humans have been watching the moon rise from the earth for hundreds of thousands of years. This was the first time someone had seen the reverse-- us, our planet, rising over the moon's horizon.
The other thing that strikes me about this photo is just how truly dark space can get. Only half the Earth is lit up. The other half is in complete blackness, like it's been consumed by something. I asked Borman if that was just the exposure of the photo. He said no, it's exactly how it looked.
It took a couple of days for Borman and the others to travel a quarter of a million miles back here. It was mostly uneventful. At some point, Jim Lovell punched some wrong buttons on the computer, which reset the guidance system.
The spacecraft had no idea where it was. Lovell had to measure the position of stars by hand, just like sailors used to do at sea. They eventually splashed down in the ocean.
They were elated. The mission was over. Everything had worked. Borman says it felt like he imagines winning the World Series might.
He had a quick phone call from the president while on board an aircraft carrier. And then he went home to his kids and his wife, Susan.
David Kestenbaum How did you describe the mission to her? Like, what you'd seen. I mean, you'd just been on this incredible--David Kestenbaum Just seven months later, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. The Russians gave up, which for Borman had been the point of the whole thing. So he did something that today seems kind of amazing. He quit. He left the job so many kids dream about.
Frank Borman I really didn't talk about it very much. As a matter of fact, I can't remember talking to her at all about it.
David Kestenbaum You don't remember saying, you won't believe what the moon looks like. I was up there?
Frank Borman No, we didn't talk a lot about it. No.
David Kestenbaum Why not?
Frank Borman It was more important to see the boys and see her. And what have you be doing? We're back. It was a wonderful time of reunion and emotion, and the last thing from my mind was to tell them what the moon looked like.
David Kestenbaum Didn't they want to know?
Frank Borman No. Nobody asked. [LAUGHS]
David Kestenbaum What do you think you did talk about?
Frank Borman How glad I was to be home, how glad they were to have me back, and how the boys are doing in school, and why the dog's dish was still full. We got right back to the nitty-gritty's.
David Kestenbaum If you had stayed, could you have walked on the moon?David Kestenbaum I wouldn't say Borman hated space. He was just indifferent to it. Or put another way, he has a strong preference for the Earth.
Frank Borman Oh, yeah. I could have. Probably. I probably could have walked on the moon. Yeah.
David Kestenbaum Did you want to?
Frank Borman No. Why? Look, the answer to your question-- I would have not accepted the risk involved to go pick up rocks. It doesn't mean that much to me.
Somebody else wanted to do it. Let them take my place. I love my family more than anything in the world. I would have never subjected them to the dangers simply for me to be an explorer.
David Kestenbaum How often do you think of the Apollo 8 mission? Just when you're on your own, doing your normal stuff.
Frank Borman It never occurred in our lives much at all, really.
David Kestenbaum I was looking up at the moon the other night, and it still feels crazy to me that you were there. If you do think back to it, is there a particular part that you tend to remember?
Frank Borman The thing that reminds me, that I recall till the day I die, was the Earth, looking back at the Earth.
I've written a bunch of endings for this story. About yes, it's in our nature to explore. It's also in our nature to want to be home. But I'm very aware of the fact that so many historians and journalists and thinkers have tried to read particular meanings into that time that we went to the moon.I'll go with the opposite. There's a beautiful purity in there.
I'm just going to end this the way the world's most uncomplicated man might-- the facts of the present, what he's doing now. It's as earthbound as it gets. Here it is. His wife, Susan, has Alzheimer's, for nine years now.
Frank Borman I'm with her every day, and she can't walk or talk or feed herself. So that's where I come in. So that's very, very difficult-- very. And that's it.David Kestenbaum Which is either the least romantic thing you can think of or just the opposite.
Earthrise, NASA image AS08-14-2383, taken by astronaut William Anders during the Apollo 8 mission, the first manned voyage to orbit the Moon, December 24, 1968