Forty years ago, the nation was still reeling from the assassinations of MLK and RFK, the turbulent Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the contentious Presidential race between Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey, and the ever-increasing scope of the ground war that we were fighting in Vietnam. America desperately needed something to restore honor and hope to its weary people.
That “something” came during the week of Christmas 1968, as hundreds of millions of people around the world watched the crew of Apollo 8 — Jim Lovell, William Anders, and Frank Borman — transmit television pictures of the Earth as their ship orbited the Moon, some 240,000 miles distant. The Apollo 8 crew also gave the world a well-needed dose of spiritual perspective — a reading of the Creation Story from the first chapter of the Book of Genesis (Quicktime).
The Apollo 8 mission was a smashing success, particularly since there were several last-minute changes in plans that resulted in a treacherously short mission preparation period. Apollo 8 was only the second manned mission in the newly-redesigned Apollo Command Service Module, and it was the first manned Apollo mission that utilized a complete Saturn V launch vehicle. The only piece of moon hardware not carried by Apollo 8 was the Lunar Excursion Module, which had repeatedly failed during its ground testing and was not ready for flight. With no available LEM, NASA was forced to modify Apollo 8’s flight plan from an Earth-orbit mission designed to test the LEM, to a longer mission involving a complete translunar injection maneuver and several orbits around the Moon itself.
The integral success of Apollo 8, particularly the flawless operation of the Saturn V launch vehicle and the near-perfect execution of the lunar orbit maneuvers, dealt a demoralizing blow to the Soviet space program. Although the Soviets had successfully delivered small payloads to the Moon, they had failed to develop a rocket powerful enough to carry a manned vehicle capable of landing on the Moon. The gargantuan N1 rocket designed by the Soviets had been rushed into production and contained a significant number of serious flaws. On July 3, 1969, just two weeks before America launched Apollo 11, an N1 rocket test ended in catastrophic failure, utterly destroying both the launch complex and any chance that the Soviets would be able to complete a manned moon mission before the end of 1969.
Apollo 8 also provided us with an early prime example of true “moonbattery,” when atheist diva Madalyn Murray O’Hair sued the United States government over the reading of the Genesis passage, claiming that the act violated the First Amendment. Her suit was dismissed by the Supreme Court due to lack of jurisdiction.
Rand Simberg at Pajamas Media has a well-written summary of the Apollo 8 mission. CNN has a good report that features contemporary interviews with the Apollo 8 astronauts, all of whom survive. Gizmodo has a copy of the original NASA press kit for Apollo 8. Voice of America has more as well.