Former US astronaut Frank Borman dies at 95

NASA astronaut Frank Borman

(Reuters) - Former U.S. astronaut Frank Borman, who made history by commanding the first manned flight to circle the moon and later piloted Eastern Airlines as chairman in severe economic turbulence, has died at the age of 95, NASA said on Thursday.

Borman, who spent a total of almost 20 days in space on two trips in the 1960s, died on Tuesday in Billings, Montana, NASA said in a statement on its website.

Born in Gary, Indiana, on March 14, 1928, he was the oldest American astronaut still living; that mantle now passes to Jim Lovell, who is also 95 but eleven days younger.

Borman grew up with a fascination for airplanes and while a schoolboy in Arizona took flying lessons that he paid for by delivering newspapers.

He became an Air Force fighter pilot after graduating from the U.S. Military Academy in 1950. Like most of his fellow generation of astronauts, he trained as a test pilot before being selected for NASA's second astronaut program in 1962. That experience was key, he said in his autobiography.

"We were veteran pilots before we became rookie astronauts, and that made the difference," he said.

His first space flight was on Gemini 7 in 1965, serving as commander on a 14-day mission that featured a rendezvous with another Gemini craft.

Three years later he was commander on Apollo 8 - the first lunar orbital mission - and made 10 trips around the moon with his two crewmates on a mission that stretched over Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

The mission yielded a stunning and unprecedented photo by Borman's crewmate William Anders that came to be known as "Earthrise" - a blue and white Earth seen as a partial orb rising over the blank lunar surface.

In 1970 Borman retired from NASA and the Air Force and became an adviser to Eastern Airlines. By 1975 he had become the airline's president and a year later was named chairman.

"I didn't want to ride for the rest of my life on the publicity I had received from NASA and become a dancing bear," he once said of his change of career. "I knew (Eastern) had some problems and I thought I could contribute."

One of his first actions was to impose the first wage freeze ever in an industry accustomed to high pay, but he tempered the move by offering employees profit-sharing.

In 1984 Eastern posted a five-year loss of $380 million and Borman came under criticism for proceeding with a costly fleet-modernization program despite the flow of red ink.

The return to profitability was not impressive - Eastern earned $6.3 million in 1985 - and a year later, its financial problems forced Borman to look outside the company for a solution. Eastern agreed to be taken over by the smaller Texas Air Corp, which became the largest airline holding company in the nation.

In 1986, Borman announced his retirement, saying he would move on to Las Cruces, New Mexico, where he would help operate his son's car dealership, work on a book and be closer to his family.

To mark the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 8 mission, Borman discussed the U.S. space program with the news outlet Politico, saying he supported the idea of a mission to Mars but that it was "preposterous" to try to colonize it.

Borman and his wife Susan had two sons. (This story has been refiled to remove a stray character in dateline)

(Reporting by Eric Beech and Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Bill Trott and Rosalba O'Brien)