Apollo 8's commander reflects on the sights and sounds of the space age

Listen to astronaut Frank Borman narrate a gripping account of the space race—and get his thoughts on the future of space exploration.

Photograph by Albert Moldvay, Nat Geo Image Collection
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In this image published in the January 1965 issue of National Geographic magazine, astronaut Frank Borman is being put into a spacesuit. Borman served as an astronaut aboard the 1965 Gemini 7 mission, and in December 1968, Borman commanded the Apollo 8 mission.

Photograph by Albert Moldvay, Nat Geo Image Collection

Apollo 8's commander reflects on the sights and sounds of the space age

Listen to astronaut Frank Borman narrate a gripping account of the space race—and get his thoughts on the future of space exploration.

Fifty years ago this July, the Apollo 11 mission to the moon made history—and audio engineers were there to capture its dizzying array of sounds. As Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, and Michael Collins made their way to the moon and back, these engineers worked around the clock to make their own high-quality recording of the transmissions, which were later edited into Sounds of the Space Age, a vinyl record insert included with 6.5 million issues of the December 1969 issue of National Geographic magazine.

The record—just the second the magazine had ever included—provides a brisk 11-minute audio summary of the space race, from the groundbreaking chirps of the Soviet satellite Sputnik to Armstrong and Aldrin’s conversations on the lunar surface. To narrate this sweeping story of exploration, National Geographic brought in someone who had lived it: Frank Borman, the commander of 1968’s historic Apollo 8 spaceflight, the first crewed mission to orbit the moon.

Borman, now 91, recently spoke with us about the space age and the future of space exploration, including his thoughts on the rise of private spaceflight firms such as SpaceX and Blue Origin. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

What would you say has changed the most in space exploration since you commanded Apollo 8 and narrated Sounds of the Space Age?

I’m sort of out of touch with where we are now; I read the newspapers like everybody else. I’m just grateful I was at NASA when I was, because we had the best team. Now, with the idea of colonizing Mars, I think they’re overselling it enormously; it’s probably still a very difficult and dangerous task. I look with skepticism at [today’s private spaceflight CEOs] the Musks and Bezoses.

What would you say to the Musks and the Bezoses, if you could talk to them?

No sense talking to them, they’re true believers. You gotta remember, too, my basis for the technology is outdated, but we still haven’t surpassed the Saturn V. People talk about the [SpaceX rocket] Falcon being able to do that; Musk has done a good job with the Falcon. When I saw that thing that Bezos is working on, [Blue Origin's New Shepard suborbital rocket] ... you’re building a carnival system.

If it were up to you, what agenda would you set for human space exploration?

I would think we would want a scientific presence on the moon, rather than just a visit-and-go. Maybe someday we could explore Mars, but I don’t think it’d be anything more than a scientific station, kind of like there is at the South Pole. Even that would be monumental.

You, Bill Anders, and Jim Lovell made history on the Apollo 8 mission, as you sent back images of Earth seen from the moon. Fifty years on, what do you think that perspective has given us?

Well you know, aside from the satellites collecting all kinds of information—weather, environment—there was the picture that Bill took of Earth, so isolated and so beautiful and so fragile. That was the most important part of the whole Apollo program.

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Apollo 8, the first mission to carry humans to the moon, entered lunar orbit on December 24, 1968. That evening, mission commander Frank Borman, command module pilot Jim Lovell, and lunar module pilot William Anders photographed Earth's "blue marble" and broadcasted from lunar orbit.

Did you all talk about taking that iconic “Earthrise” picture ahead of time?

That was a spur-of-the-moment thing. He wasn’t prepared, it was a target of opportunity. I think we were just fascinated by it.

Space agencies around the world have talked a lot about sending people back to the moon. If you could talk to those future astronauts directly, what would you say to them?

I’d say, take a step-by-step approach, and be careful.