This 2017 conversation with Frank Borman was recorded during my research for an Air & Space Magazine article on Apollo 7, timed for the 50th anniversary of that flight in October 2018. Part 1 of the interview is here. Col. (USAF, ret) Frank Borman commanded both the Gemini 7 and Apollo 8 missions, and was instrumental in the success of the Apollo 204 (Apollo 1) fire investigation, and implementation of design changes to the Apollo spacecraft after the 1967 fire.
Jones The Apollo 7 guys — How often were they out there in Downey, California with their spacecraft? Did you get to interact with them much as they prepared?
Borman They were out there quite often, as you can imagine. The reports of contention between Wally and me were strictly from the standpoint of “How good was good enough?” I think that the whole program owes a lot to Wally Schirra. If you’ll recall on Gemini 6, if he had followed the mission rules, he would have pulled the ejection handle and the whole Gemini program would have been in jeopardy. Wally’s experience and judgment shown through on Gemini 6, and that helped make sure that Gemini worked. On Apollo 7 he had a very crucial flight, and he was prickly about it at times, but I always got along with Wally. We had some, how shall I say, agreements to disagree, but they always went away, and his concerns about the quality of the spacecraft were alleviated when they got to the Cape. As I recall, the people at the Cape said it was the best spacecraft that had ever been received there.
Jones So, the process did work out in the end.
Borman It worked out in the end. I respected him, and we remained good friends.
Jones Did you ever get the feeling that he was carrying crew input too far? Was that the contention?
Borman Yes! (laughter)
Jones He wanted it his way or no way, huh?
Borman That’s right. And we would negotiate. (laughter) You have an insight.
Jones I saw that in the space station program. In fact, they reinstituted that change board for the ISS development.
Borman I didn’t know that.
Jones George Abbey put that back in. Every Saturday morning we’d be there for four or five hours going over the changes to the space station. I think he’d seen that in operation as a young technical assistant to George Low back during Apollo. I already asked you whether there were any significant differences between your ship and Apollo 7’s. Any more thoughts on that?
Borman No, because I told you because it originally ours was CM-104, but we ended up with McDivitt’s ship. There weren’t any significant differences that I can remember fifty years later.
Jones Let’s get to the Apollo 7 flight in October 1968. Your crew had already been told you were going to go to the moon. What were you looking for in terms of the critical flight tests that Apollo 7 had to do to make sure you could get your “Go” for the moon?
Borman I’ll be very honest with you. I didn’t pay any intention to Apollo 7. They were responsible people and would check it out. We were so busy trying to learn how to fly Apollo 8…It was a hectic time.
Jones I can imagine. That’s very telling. So, you just trusted those guys to do the check-out and you’d learn if anything went wrong.
Jones Did you recall anything that went wrong?
Borman No. I went to the postflight debriefing, but I don’t think there were any significant problems at all. And I can tell you this, if there had been any significant problems, we’d have never gone to the Moon on Apollo 8.
Jones It must have been a pretty clean mission. I’ve read a lot about it, and I don’t recall anything either. But they had to have very solid assurance to commit to Apollo 8. It had to have been nearly perfect.
Borman That’s right. I think that was the case, that Apollo 7 had to be as near-perfect as you could get it, or we would never have flown to the Moon on Apollo 8.
Jones How did you learn about Wally and his crew’s testiness with mission control? Did you hear about that after the fact, or was it in common discussion during the flight?
Borman No, I think everybody at NASA knew what was going on. I don’t know what got into Wally and the crew there. People blamed it on a head cold, but I don’t know what was going on there. It was uncalled for on the crew’s part in my opinion.
Jones You guys obviously had a completely different vibe with MCC. Was there any overt discussion of how you guys would do business with the control center, or was that just understood?
Borman We never discussed it to my knowledge. To answer your question, we never discussed it with Chris or any of the other people in Control. We just reacted in the way that we had in the past.
Jones Just the just the same operations, tempo and mood. I’ll close with this question: What do you think was Apollo 7’s most vital contribution to getting your flight around the moon? And the achievement of the moon landing, for that matter?
Borman I think Apollo 7 was absolutely crucial in maintaining the schedule of landing on the Moon in the 1960s. Had Apollo 7 gone wrong, there’s no question in my mind that we would have never made it in the 1960s. Apollo 7 really started a whole new era in spaceflight, which was much more complex…Look at Apollo 13 and how well that ended up. I give a lot of credit for the success of Apollo 11 to the success of Apollo 7.
You have to look at it like this: all the flights were crucial. If Apollo 7 had been bad, it would have affected us. If we’d had a problem on 8, that would have been a problem for later missions. It was a well-thought-out flight [sequence], and each one was critical.
Jones Yes, to execute a series of tests in sequence that would get you finally to the landing capability.
Borman Exactly. But I can’t emphasize enough what a wonderful place NASA was to work at that point, because the overriding concern of everybody was meeting that schedule and doing it safely. There were no—and it wasn’t my involvement–but I bet you a hundred-to-one, there weren’t any environmental assessments required, if you know what I’m talking about. You just went out and dug out the swamp and did what needed to be done. It was really a battle in the Cold War, and everybody was onboard, and if you didn’t carry your weight, you were gone! It was as absolute as you can get; yes or no, or goodbye. And the people that ran it, the Krafts, the Gilruths, von Braun, Slayton—they were all class people. They’d been there. I’ve often thought that if America’s involvement in Vietnam had been handled by NASA management, we probably would have had a hell of a lot better outcome…
Jones That’s a great observation…I’ll have to remember that one. Any other thoughts that I’ve overlooked?
Borman My overriding point is that Apollo 7’s [success] was absolutely crucial to Apollo 11.