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Apollo 8 astronaut Frank Borman’s journey started in Indiana

GARY, Ind. (AP) — It’s a long, long, long, long way from Gary, Indiana, to the far side of the moon. More than 238,000 miles, in fact.

But 50 years ago last Friday, Frank Borman, an astronaut born in the Steel City, was launched with two others in a small capsule atop the first crewed Saturn V rocket.

On Christmas Eve 1968 they became the first human beings to orbit another heavenly body.

Apollo 8 was America’s initial manned mission to the moon. It would be followed, most notably, by the Apollo 11 moon landing on July 20, 1969, and five more successful landings until Chicago native Eugene Cernan left the last boot-prints on the moon Dec. 14, 1972.

NASA’s Apollo program fulfilled President John F. Kennedy’s goal, announced in 1962, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth by the end of the decade.

The story is replete with Hoosiers, whether born in Indiana, like Borman; or trained at Purdue University, like Cernan and Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon; or inspired by Apollo to pursue their own space adventures, like Jerry Ross, a Crown Point native who flew seven space shuttle missions between 1985 and 2002.

It just goes to show that even the longest journeys ever taken can start in Northwest Indiana with a single step … or a giant leap.

Now 90, the namesake of the Region’s Borman Expressway lives in Montana, where he has spent the past nine years attending to the daily needs of Susan, his wife of 68 years, as she suffers the debilitating effects of Alzheimer’s disease.

“It’s very, very difficult. Very,” Borman said in August on the Chicago-based public radio program, “This American Life.”

Family always has come first for Borman, who retired from NASA to spend more time with his wife and two sons not long after his Apollo 8 mission around the moon, even though he likely would have had the opportunity to walk on the moon had he remained at the space agency.

“I would not have accepted the risk involved to go pick up rocks. It doesn’t mean that much to me,” Borman said in the radio interview.

“If 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.”

Borman likewise has the same no-nonsense perspective on Apollo 8.

Even though it would fly farther than any manned spaceship ever had and produce a photograph of the Earth from the perspective of the moon that’s widely credited with launching the environmental movement, Borman said he had one overriding purpose on the trip.

“I was there because it was a battle in the Cold War,” Borman said. “I wanted to participate in this American adventure of beating the Soviets. That’s the only thing that motivated me — beat the damn Russians.”

Prior to Apollo 8, the Soviet Union beat the Americans to launch the first satellite, Sputnik in 1957; send the first man into space, Yuri Gagarin in 1961; send the first woman into space, Valentina Tereshkova, in 1963; and send the first probes to the moon, Venus and Mars.

Meanwhile, the United States in 1967 saw Apollo 1 astronauts Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, an Indiana native and Purdue University graduate; Edward H. White II; and Roger B. Chaffee, another Purdue graduate, perish in a cabin fire during a launch test, postponing future Apollo flights for 20 months until Apollo 7 returned Americans to space in October 1968.

While Borman didn’t encounter any Russians on the six-day Apollo 8 flight, neither does he romanticize his 10 lunar orbits or the nearly half-million miles he traveled in space from the Earth to the moon and back.

“I didn’t want to spend any more time in lunar orbit than absolutely necessary, for any prolonging of the mission simply increased the chances of something going wrong,” Borman said in his 1988 autobiography, “Countdown.”

As for the moon itself: “It’s a vast, lonely, forbidding type of existence … a great expanse of nothing that looks rather like clouds and clouds of pumice stone. It certainly would not be a very inviting place to live and work,” Borman said.

The only thing Borman said he did like seeing from the moon was the Earth.

“It was 240,000 miles away. It was small enough you could cover it with your thumbnail. And the dearest things in life were back on the Earth, my family, my wife,” he said.

“It was the only thing in space that had any color to it. Everything else was either black or white, but not the Earth. It was mostly a soft, peaceful blue, the continents outlined in a pinkish brown. And always the white clouds, like long streaks of cotton suspended above the immense globe.”

However, to Borman, the realist, still more impressive was the overall accomplishment of Apollo 8.

Not what Borman and his fellow astronauts, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders, did in space, but what all the people associated with the Apollo program got done together.

“A machine produced by more than 300,000 Americans was circling the moon for the first time in history,” he said. “We showed what American determination, coordinated effort and selfless cooperation could achieve.”

Michael Smith, a history professor at Purdue University, which dubs itself “The Cradle of Astronauts” for training 24 of them, said with the journey of Apollo 8, “Americans had won a big part of the race to the moon.”

“With a powerful cultural significance, Apollo 8 sent back a famous photograph of the Earth from lunar orbit, cementing the popular image of a fragile planet in living color,” Smith said.

“Apollo 8 was one of the signal ‘giant leaps’ of the Apollo program, much like the earlier successful test launches of the Saturn booster, and the coming mission of Apollo 11 to land on the moon.”

It also was among the space firsts that inspired a kid growing up in a tiny Crown Point farmhouse to want to study engineering at Purdue and eventually become an astronaut himself.

In his autobiography, “Spacewalker,” Ross describes how he entered Purdue in 1966, at the height of the U.S.-Soviet Space Race, and was motivated to pursue his own record-setting career as an astronaut thanks to the space accomplishments of fellow Purdue grads, Grissom, Chaffee, Cernan, and especially Armstrong on Apollo 11.

“It was incredible to listen to Neil and watch those first steps,” Ross said. “It was thrilling to realize that it was actually happening.”

“Any time there was information about the mission on TV, and I wasn’t working, I was there. I didn’t care if the coverage was just a shot of Mission Control in Houston with no one talking. I loved what they were doing, how they were doing it, the suspense and the technology. It all just fascinated me.”

Less than two decades later, in 1985, the personnel in Mission Control would be talking to Ross as he performed two spacewalks outside the shuttle Atlantis on the first of what would become the most space missions for any NASA astronaut.

“The view of Earth is overwhelming when you’re moving at five miles per second,” Ross said. “The best way to describe the experience is like this: think of hundreds of beautiful photos of flowers, rainbows, thunderstorms, sunrises and features in our national parks.”

“Then imagine that you glue them together end-to-end and run them past your eyes quickly. That’s what it’s like looking out the windows of the space shuttle. The view is a rapidly changing kaleidoscope of scenes and colors that overwhelms the senses and leaves everyone who is fortunate enough to witness it without adequate words to describe what they have seen.”

And yet, even while tethered to the space shuttle on his nine spacewalks above the Earth, Ross said he never forgot the place from which he came.

“From 200 miles high I have watched lightning pop through dark clouds stretched across the Amazon, seen the Himalayas reach up to greet me and looked down on the Indiana hometown from where I once looked up at the stars.”