posted 01-22-2022 05:19 PM
The new non-fiction book “The Far Side of the Moon” is both a love story and a tragedy.
This authorized biography, written by Liisa Jorgensen, is a moving look back at the lives of Frank Borman and his late wife Susan. Colonel Borman, now age 93, was the hard-driving over-achiever who was the quarterback of his state champion high school football team. He learned to fly at age 15, attended West Point where he graduated 8th out of 670, and joined the Air Force where he was at the top of his flight classes. Borman became a test pilot and was in the first class of the Aerospace Research Pilot School. He loved flying and was laser-focused on his career.
While in high school he met the beautiful Susan Bugbee, three years his junior. On the outside she was fun with a great personality, but inside Susan had demons which she repressed. She was cursed with an evil mother who among other things, blamed 13-year-old Susan for the death of Susan’s father from an asthma attack (of course, this made no sense). Her mother thought Susan could do nothing right and was constantly belittling and criticizing her.
Susan and Frank fell in love and, after a year-long separation due to Frank’s Air Force training during which they dated others, the couple got married. Susan took on the role of a military wife with its frequent moves, poor housing, and expectations to put her husband ahead of herself. Frank advanced in the military and with the encouragement of Air Force leadership applied in 1962 to become an astronaut. He was accepted as one of the New Nine. Frank, Susan and their 2 sons moved to Houston.
Astronaut wives were expected to be smiling, well-dressed, devoted to their husbands, and supportive of NASA’s mission. Their husbands, including Frank, were away much of the time for training, so the astronaut wives became “single parents” when it came to raising their children, running a household, and living up to NASA’s PR expectations. Many of the men (but not Frank) were involved in affairs while on the road.
Death was the unspoken fear that hung over the wives in the pilot community. During difficult and dangerous test pilot training, crashes and funerals were commonplace. “It’s not going to happen to me” was the pilot’s refrain. Among early NASA astronauts, Ted Freeman, Ed Givens, Elliot See, and Charlie Bassett died in various accidents. In January 1967 Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee were killed in a fire during a ground test of their sealed, oxygen-rich Apollo capsule.
This hit the Bormans particularly hard because they had become good friends with Ed and Pat White. Susan became convinced that Frank was going to die during his training or his two space missions. The book claims that astronaut physician Dr. Charles Berry handed out tranquilizers like candy to worried wives. Susan found solace in alcohol instead.
Meanwhile Frank took a leadership role in NASA’s recovery from the Apollo Fire. He was on the investigation board and defended the program in Congress. He practically lived in Downey, California where the capsule was being redesigned. Frank’s priorities then were the Mission first and his family second. Susan was left to cope alone with family health emergencies, house problems, the public role of being an astronaut wife, and fears for her husband’s safety.
Smiling and chipper, Susan externally seemed to be one of the ideal wives; for example, with Marge Slayton she founded the Astronaut Wives Club. Internally she repressed her anger at her terrible mother, her certainty that Frank would die, and her resentment that her husband was never there for her.
Frank was a patriotic Cold Warrior and believed his highest calling was to defeat the Soviets in getting to the Moon. After flying Gemini 7 for two weeks in Earth orbit, Frank commanded Apollo 8 in lunar orbit. Along with Jim Lovell and Bill Anders, they became the first humans to leave Earth in a dangerous but highly successful first flight to the Moon. Borman then spent a year as the NASA liaison to the White House before joining Eastern Airlines as vice president for operations. Eastern was in crisis and Borman was determined to save it, even though it meant long absences from Susan.
The pressure, anger, and resentment left Susan depressed and she began to drink more. She had a “nervous breakdown” which led to a four-month hospitalization at a psychiatric facility in Vermont. She received treatment for depression and alcohol abuse and was able to bravely come to terms with her demons, such as the loss of her father at age 13 and her dreadful mother.
The situation shocked Frank into a re-evaluation of his own life. The author had access to touching letters expressing his love which he sent to Susan while she was confined. He promised to always be there for her in the future. He kept that vow.
After Frank resigned as president of Eastern due to union demands in 1986, the couple moved to Las Cruces, New Mexico, where Susan opened a store. They later moved to Montana where another tragedy unfolded: Susan developed Alzheimer’s disease. Frank was devoted to her as she deteriorated and visited her every day at the nursing home. He moved to an apartment across from the facility to be closer. Susan died in September 2021.
This book is emotionally brutal and honest. Susan is the hero of the story, devoting herself to her husband and sons. Her struggle and victory against depression and alcohol is inspiring. Frank has been courageous to tell their story, warts and all, to the author, and provide written records such as personal letters. Susan’s saga of resilience is a gift to her family, friends, many admirers, and to history. Nineteen of the 29 marriages of men who flew in Apollo eventually ended in divorce but not hers.
Profound love kept Susan and Frank together through rough spots in their lives. Author Liisa Jergensen does a masterful job of bringing that love and those struggles to light. I highly recommend this book for its insight into the challenges of being a military and astronaut wife. They were heroes on the ground. Best book ever on that topic!