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Kids meet famous retired astronaut
LARRY MAYER/Gazette Staff Former astronaut Frank Borman autographs everything from scraps of paper to shirts during a visit with students at the Billings Experimental Aircraft Association hangar Thursday afternoon.

Former astronaut Frank Borman still keeps his tattered copy of "The Red Eagle," a children's book about flying and building airplanes.

His love of flying started with model airplanes. It grew when his father, who drove a laundry truck, paid $5 for Borman to ride in a biplane with a barnstorming pilot. Borman soloed at 15. Before he entered the Air Force, he would work all week to pay for a weekend flying lesson.

Thursday, the 75-year-old Borman flew a single-engine Maule plane into Billings to share his love of aviation with schoolchildren from Ponderosa Elementary and Riverside Middle School.

As youngsters swirled around him, Borman autographed a replica of the Wright brothers' first glider, built by the students. Then, in a hangar at the west edge of the airport, he autographed everything from the kids' model booster rockets to the backs of T-shirts.

Borman regaled the students with stories about what led him to sit on top of a Saturn V rocket which generated 7 1/2 million pounds of thrust.

In 1965, Borman commanded Gemini 7, which made the first space rendezvous. In 1968, he commanded Apollo 8, the first flight to orbit the moon.

At air shows, he now flies his P-51 Mustang, a World War II vintage fighter plane. He runs a small business restoring old planes. Borman, and his wife Susan, bought a ranch at Custer three years ago and split their time between Montana and Las Cruces, N.M.

On board the Gemini flight, Borman was shoehorned into the capsule with fellow astronaut James Lovell.

"I spent 14 days in an area smaller than the front seat of a VW Beetle," Borman said in an interview before his talk.

The two astronauts crooned to each other Nat "King" Cole's song, "Put Your Sweet Lips a Little Closer to the Phone." They even shared a toothbrush when they lost one brush during the flight.

Borman's audience laughed when he described sleeping in zero gravity with his arms stretched out like a sleepwalker. Later, he talked about sitting on top of the 36-story Saturn rocket during liftoff.

"You get a tremendous feeling something big is happening below you," he said.

Apollo 8 captivated Americans with breathtaking photos of Earthrise. Then, on Christmas Eve, the world listened while the astronauts read from Genesis as they circled the moon.

"Everything else in the universe was black and white, but the Earth was blue. That image will be in my mind forever," Borman said.

During his talk, Borman delivered a simple message: "Do your best."

He tried to keep that motto in mind, he said, whether he was painting latrines during boot camp or flying missions in space.