I have yet to see a better and more credible depiction of the upside/downside of astronaut persona. In his modest and understated way Frank Borman describes his career through the military, the astronaut program, and the private business sector. A genuinely honest man who embodied the best values of middle America, Borman commanded two of the most visible and critical flights of the early manned space program: the epic endurance flight Gemini 7 in 1965 and the stunning circumlunar Apollo 8 adventure of Christmas Eve 1968. Widely respected in NASA and government circles, he was selected to lead the investigation of the Apollo fire which killed his comrades Grissom, White, and Chafee. He was, in every respect, an upright military man who embraced the challenge of the space race with dogged tenacity.
So why, with every page, does the reader feel like he is moving inexorably toward a train wreck? Perhaps because Borman's candor compels him to chronicle the downside of his single-minded determination and doggedness. It is hard to say if the author intended to give us this psychological two-edged sword, or whether it is simply the fruit of honesty. In either case the clues are there: with every career choice, with every renewed commitment to NASA, Borman etched his name on the honor roll of American space heroes. And, in the process, insulated himself from family and society, with painful consequences.
Borman's personal world begins to unravel, ironically, at the time of his greatest triumph, the Apollo 8 mission to the moon. His wife Susan, already stretched thin by years as a dutiful military wife in the spotlight and totally unnerved by the Apollo 1 fire, drifted into the murky world of alcoholism. Borman admits that, totally absorbed as he was with the Apollo Program, he was completely out of touch with her drinking, relieved that at least his wife was not using prescription tranquilizers, then in vogue among astronaut wives. [Andrew Chaikin's "A Man on the Moon" describes Susan Borman's problems during Apollo 8 in much greater detail than Borman could bring himself to describe.]
Sadly unaware of the unfolding tragedy at home, Borman retired from the Air Force and proceeded to make the grand-daddy of all bad career choices, particularly considering the choices at hand. It is not clear from the text whether the author truly understood the complexities of Eastern Airlines' financial difficulties, or the character of the people he would need to do business with. Borman does concede that he knew next to nothing about unions, which would be his undoing at Eastern along with deregulation and a sagging economy. Despite his earnestness and hard work-and no one worked harder-the book ends at February 23, 1986, the night of the Eastern bankruptcy, a broken ex-astronaut crying in his wife's arms.
It is a troubling ending. It is also a reflection of the conundrum of the race to the moon. The United States would never have overtaken the Russians in the space race without men like Borman who sacrificed everything for the goal of national success. But this work reveals another side of the space race: how the race to the moon collected men like Borman, took those assets of steely self-determination, and turned them against the astronauts themselves. This is a cost of the Apollo Program that is rarely discussed, and we, like the dazed author at the end of the book, have to decide for ourselves if the cost was worth it.
This philosophical twist, perhaps unexpectedly, is the author's biggest contribution to space literature. Borman's account of his missions reveals little new material, and he remains too private a man to titillate the reader with his uncensored thoughts about, say, Jim Lovell, with whom he spent an eternity in the closest of quarters. As a narrative of the race to the moon, this is a superficial work from one so intimately connected to the space program. But my guess is that Borman's real interest in writing his autobiography was less about space hardware and more about figuring out just what the hell happened to him.