May 06, 1974 12:00 PM

If Jack Armstrong, the All-American boy, had grown to middle age, his name would be Frank Borman. In an era of antiheroes, the 46-year-old ex-astronaut is a refreshing throwback to a simpler time when the star quarterback went on to West Point, came home to marry his high school sweetheart, flew off to orbit the moon, and wound up as senior vice president of a major airline. Frank Borman has done all that, and more, and his wife Susan has been there right beside him keeping up both the press clippings and her half of the family image.

But it hasn’t always been as easy as the 15 Borman scrapbooks indicate. “Astronaut life was a pressure-cooker life,” Frank reflects, “and the wives really took more of it than the men did, for they had to be ‘on’ all the time.” Susan nods in agreement, adding: “We were always symbolically in our little white gloves, even out in the yard puttering in the petunias or going to the supermarket.” Of the core group of 30 astronaut families, the Bormans estimate that divorce and emotional problems have struck about half. “The space program wasn’t the cause of all of their troubles,” Frank observes of his fellow astronauts. “In some cases problems already there were accentuated.” The Bormans themselves have not escaped scars. Susan had a breakdown, but is now recovered.

The Bormans were already going steady when Susan Bugbee was 15 and he was the 17-year-old Saturday hero of the Tucson High Badgers. They dated others in college (she went to Penn and then Arizona) but finally married between his West Point graduation and entrance into the air force. He was trained as a fighter pilot and earned a master’s at Caltech before becoming an astronaut in 1962. “We knew we were moving into a much-publicized group,” says Susan, rolling her eyes. “But wow!” Borman achieved worldwide fame on Christmas Eve 1968 when, as commander of Apollo 8, the first moon-orbiting mission, he and his colleagues read passages of the Book of Genesis from their capsule to millions of enthralled earthbound listeners. “In the beginning…,” came the words out of the darkness, and few who heard them have forgotten. “Our beliefs were there before we flew,” says Borman, a devout Episcopalian, “but space enhanced them.”

Borman’s ambitious, ambassadorial personality earned him 10 White House goodwill trips, including two to Russia and one to China. Finally, after 17 relocations in the previous 12 years, the Bormans had had government life. “No more missions,” said Frank, and Susan agrees: “Nothing could get us back on the treadmill.” He accepted a vice presidency of Eastern Airlines, with a base in Miami.

When they plunged into the hectic social-cum-business civilian whirl, however, they soon discovered that it was the same old pressure cooker. Frank, driving as ever, made city-a-day trouble-shooting tours for the company, and when at home was constantly taping TV spots for the Boy Scouts, the United Fund or ecology causes. Susan’s life was nearly as hectic, running the first fund-raising gala for the local PBS channel. Last August, her breakdown occurred. “It was 43 years accumulating,” she says, “and I did it big.” But after three months in Hartford’s Institute of Living, a leading psychiatric hospital, she returned home for “our greatest Christmas ever, better than when Frank went around the moon.” Susan adds, “I always believed I was strong, now I know I am strong. Why when one woman bitchily said she hoped my illness hadn’t interfered with Frank’s career, I told her, ‘For heaven’s sakes, I am now not only someone’s wife, someone’s mother, someone’s daughter—I am me, and that makes it best for all of us.’ ”

Susan’s cure has signaled the beginning of a new chapter in the Bormans’ 25-year marriage, particularly now that their two sons, Edwin, 22, and Frederick, 20, are away at West Point. “I’ve loosened up quite a bit,” observes Frank. “We have realized that we can’t be all things to all people.” Adds Susan: “We have learned how to say no to all those invitations.” But that aside, Frank still works six days a week, starting with breakfast in the company cafeteria. Susan, at least, travels with him on business trips and tries to make him swim every night in the pool at their lavish house (he is only three pounds over his flying weight).

“A lot of people thought Eastern had hired me as a kind of PR man,” Borman said on a recent flight. “But they all know differently now.” He has had to direct the trimming of 4,000 employees from the payroll. “It’s hell,” Frank says, “but it is one of the things we must do.” With that, he settles back in his seat, puts his arm around Susan, and happily lets Eastern be the wings of man—and wife.

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