Book Review: Countdown by Frank Borman
I think I made an essential mistake in staying in movies, but it’s a mistake I can’t regret, because it’s like saying, ‘I shouldn’t have stayed married to that woman, but I did because I love her.’
Frank Borman enjoyed not one but two extraordinarily successful careers. As an Air Force officer he flew the hottest jets on the planet. As a NASA Astronaut he made history as the mission commander of Apollo 8 the first flight to another world. I consider this an even greater achievement than Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon. But Borman didn’t want to make the Air Force his home nor was he smitten with NASA. He served both institutions out of a sense of duty. Just as soon as he was able he collected his Air Force twenty year pension and walked away. It was then that the former astronaut discovered his true calling. In addition to his wife and two boys Frank Borman was enamored with Eastern Air Lines. Sadly this infatuation would prove to be his undoing. Countdown is a tragic tale of unrequited love and a ruined airline.
To this day the scars of 1968 remain etched deep on the American psyche. Over the course twelve unhappy months there was the Tet Offensive, the My Lai Massacre and the public execution of Nguyễn Văn Lém. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were murdered. John Gordon Mein became the first US Ambassador assassinated in the line of duty, gunned down one block from the US consulate in Guatemala City. North Korea captured the USS Pueblo killing one crewman and taking the other eighty-two hostage. Braniff Flight 352 crashed near Dawson Texas with the loss of eighty-five lives. The Zodiac killer was on a homicidal rampage. The U.S. nuclear-powered submarine USS Scorpion was lost with ninety-nine men aboard. The Farmington Mine disaster in West Virginia killed seventy-eight men and the nation was rocked with riots. In the final week of 1968 Frank Borman came to the rescue when, on Christmas Eve, he and his Apollo 8 crew of James Lovell and Bill Anders entered lunar orbit and sent back the first pictures ever seen of the Earth rising over the horizon of an alien world. All of us, everyone we ever knew or heard of, had spent theirs lives on that small blue and white orb swimming in a background of black.
Before launch Borman had been informed that he would be hosting a Christmas Eve TV show from lunar orbit. Minus a script he would need to improvise. The estimated audience for this broadcast was expected to be in excess of one billion people and that at a time when the world population was a paltry three and a half billion. The astronaut wondered what to say on such a momentous occasion. He considered talking about world peace and brotherhood but he knew that as an Air Force officer his words would be put into the context of the Vietnam war and ruined. Next he pondered explaining the significance of the first interplanetary flight, but he felt that idea was too self-congratulatory. To say, “Ha-ha. I’m at the moon and you’re down there on Earth,” would be boastful. He mulled over the idea of doing comedy. But Borman wasn’t Wally Schirra. He didn’t think of himself as a comedian and was afraid that if no one laughed at his jokes he’s just look stupid.
Almost by default Borman decided that he and his crew would take turns reading the first verses of the book of Genesis from the King James Bible. He reasoned that the majority of the audience would be either Jewish, Christian or Muslim and so they’d identify with the passages and consider it their own thus feeling a part of the mission. And so from lunar orbit was heard the words,
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
It was a powerful moment but not everyone was pleased. Madalyn Murray O’Hair sued Borman for reading scriptures from a government owned spacecraft. I suspect others might have found less direct ways to make their resentment know.
After his safe return to Earth Borman had a year and a half until he qualified for retirement. He didn’t want to go back into the flight rotation so he asked for a nonflying assignment. NASA sent him on a goodwill speaking tour to colleges and universities across the country. Campus unrest was high due to the war and Borman freely admitted that the trip was a disaster. At Columbia University he had hardly begun to speak when students dressed in gorilla suits climbed onto the stage to reenact the Dawn of Man sequence from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Surprisingly the supreme moment of downright nastiness was at Cornell where Borman and his wife Susan were the guests of Carl Sagan. The famous astronomer had invited them to his house to meet some of the members of Students for a Democratic Society, Sagan was their faculty advisor. All night long they sat around on the living room floor as Sagan egged the young scholars on in an orchestrated pseudo intellectual attack on American values. Borman felt that the students at least had youth and misplaced idealism on their side but he couldn’t forgive Sagan for that unpleasant evening. Their parting that night was icy. I wish it had been otherwise. Although I’m a Carl Sagan fan I would have much preferred Borman to have been less of a gentleman and to have blow his top. When you invite someone into your home as a guest it’s incumbent on you to treat that person with respect. Sagan broke that social contract and so I saw no reason for Borman to act with restraint.
Next Borman was assigned to the Nixon White House to serve as a liaison during the Apollo 11 mission. There he met and worked with many of the men who would become infamous for their involvement with the Watergate scandal. I wish Borman had gone into more detail about his White House experience, he gave us only a few pages. He also traveled to the Soviet Union and hosted a delegation of Soviet cosmonauts as they visited the US. Once again I was disappointed by the lack of detail. Was there anything Borman admired about the Soviets? Was there anything they admired about Americans? He didn’t say much on the matter.
When we came to Borman’s Eastern Air Lines years I could sense his excitement. In fact I had the feeling that everything he had written previous; NASA, the moon, the White House and the Soviets was nothing more than a hook to lead the reader into the story Borman really wanted to tell, what it was like to run an airline.
The history of Eastern harkens back to the birth of commercial aviation. During the golden age of flight a ride on an airliner was considered a special event. Passengers would dress up prior to boarding hoping to be seated next to Hollywood movie stars, prominent political leaders, sports figures, famous writers or other noteworthy persons. Sometimes these expectations were actually met. For the rich and famous the airline on which they flew mattered, and even the pilots were minor celebrities. To Frank Borman the transition from rocket jock and interplanetary space explorer to CEO of a legacy airline wasn’t a loss of social status. To the contrary, Borman considered it a big step up and for several years he did an admirable job. But as they say, if you want a happy ending you need to know where to end your story. Borman’s infatuation with Eastern may have blinded him to its precarious future. If only he had quite while he was ahead.
Before 1978 it was believed that free market capitalism would destroy the industry and so the now defunct Civil Aeronautics Authority regulated airline routes, controlled entry of new air carriers into the market and set ticket prices. This meant that competing airlines couldn’t undercut Eastern’s airfares. Government control would keep the airline afloat through economic downturns and other hardships. The Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 changed all that. No frills airlines such as People’s Express sprung up like mushrooms and with nonunion labor they were able to operate at significantly lower rates. The traveling public was revealed to be a fickle lot who cared more for low fairs than brand loyalty. Business travelers and vacations alike were willing to forgo the beluga caviar and lobster thermidor and book their flights on Ed’s Economy Airline provided Ed could get them to their destination for less. For Easter it was a game changer.
Now a proper villain enters the story in the person of Charlie Bryan, the head of the International Association of Machinists southwest division. Bryan never tied a damsels to railroad tracks but I’m sure Borman wouldn’t have put it past him. Bryan, a onetime college dropout, set his sights on the former astronaut and like Captain Ahab’s quest for Moby-Dick it was personal. Borman’s West Point education may have left him insensitive to the subtle art of self-promotion so important to labor relations and civilian life. Within Eastern Borman was known as the Colonel. That title might have been endearing had he been selling fried chicken and mashed potatoes from a roadside dinner but for an airline executive it was poison. In the world of flight all the glamor is centered on the pilots, a fact that often rankles aviation workers who don’t hold a throttle in their right hand. If you constantly remind the mechanics of your superior station in life why expect them to be receptive to wage concessions or working longer hours? Reminding Charlie Bryan of Borman’s heroic past was like waving a red flag in front of a bull. As Eastern headed for chapter 11 bankruptcy Frank Borman was like a man riding atop of runaway boxcar. He didn’t know how to stop it or get off. After being forced out by Bryan the airline limped along for five more years before finely being sent to receivership
A few years ago I passed through the Las Vegas airport just days before Halloween. The airline ticket counter was decorated with styrofoam gravestones marking the names of the dearly departed airlines. There was Pan-Am, Braniff, TWA, Continental, USAir and so many others. And there was Eastern and I wondered if it really mattered. More than ninety-nine percent of all airlines have gone belly-up. For airlines insolvency is the rule rather then the exception, but air travel continues only the names change.
If the world could continue without Pan-Am and TWA what difference does it make that Eastern is no more? Sure a lot of people lost their jobs and I’m sorry for that but we no longer live in a world where lifetime employment is expected. A hundred years from now people will read Countdown out of interest in Apollo 8 and will likely be dismayed to discover that nearly half the book is devoted to a long forgotten airline. The irony is that Frank Borman immortalized Charlie Bryan in the pages of his autobiography.