Nineteen-sixty-eight was a bit of a nail-biting year for the world—assassinations, riots and war seemed constant—and for America's space agency too. The year had begun with the Apollo program dangerously behind schedule for a lunar landing by the end of the decade, but ended spectacularly, with the first crew of astronauts in orbit around the Moon.
When the Apollo program began in 1961, NASA had it all planned out. Each mission would build on the previous one. The pieces of the spacecraft — the Command and Service Module (CSM) and the Lunar Module (LM) — would be tested separately then together in Earth orbit before the whole configuration would fly to the moon. Lunar orbital shakedown flights would lead to landing attempts. This plan demanded NASA stick to a strict schedule. But in 1967, everything began to fall apart.
During a regular pre-launch test for the first manned Apollo mission on January 27, 1967, a fire broke out in the cockpit. The crew was killed, and the accident revealed fatal flaws in the spacecraft. Substantial redesigns were necessary, which required further unmanned tests before another manned flight could think about launching.
The rest of 1967 and the first half of 1968 was devoted to fixing the problems and unmanned testing of new hardware. Then, in August 1968, NASA was dealt another blow. The Soviet Union, who had been falling behind in the space race since 1965, came out of the woodwork with the lunar-orbital flight. The unmanned Zond 5 spacecraft flew to the Moon, swung around its far side, and returned safely to Earth. When NASA heard about the mission from the CIA, there was no doubt in its administrators' minds that the Soviet Union planned to man the next Zond 5 and beat NASA to the Moon.
And so, sensing the mounting pressure, Apollo Spacecraft Program Office manager George Low came up with an elegant and audacious solution: schedules and incremental testing be damned, send the next Apollo flight to the Moon.
NASA's next manned launch was slated for October 1968. Apollo 7 was a shakedown cruise of the CSM in Earth orbit. Low suggested that if everything worked fine on Apollo 7, Apollo 8 take the same spacecraft — just the CSM — to the Moon at the next launch window in December. The mission would be an excellent test of the lunar trajectory programming the engineers had been developing, and it was the best shot NASA had to get a man to the Moon before the Soviet Union.
In August, planning began for a possible Apollo 8 lunar flight; it was an internally coded mission to keep the plan secret from the media. The crew was known: Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders; the question was not just how to make the most of the flight but how to justify the risks that a lunar mission entailed. Some were keen to have the crew slingshot around the moon. This was the safest profile since gravity would be in charge.
Entering lunar orbit was riskier — the crew would have to fire their main engine once to enter into orbit and again to leave orbit and return to Earth. This would have a greater payoff for later missions, as knowing how to enter and leave lunar orbit would allow NASA to tackle that problem sooner, giving NASA a greater chance of meeting its moon-landing deadline. If the engine failed, however, the astronauts could be stuck in orbit with no way home.
NASA senior engineers felt confident enough in the equipment and the personnel, but they also the potential for a significant morale boost provided by a circumlunar flight. All they needed to do was convince agency administrator James Webb, who wasn't so sure. Added pressure came in September, when the Soviet Union launched some living creatures, including Russian tortoises, in a cislunar loop around the Moon on Zond 5 and return to Earth on September 21.Speculation abounded that they intended to launch humans around the moon next.
Eventually Webb went along, and the decision was made to have the crew go into orbit. When Apollo 8 launched on December 21, 1968, it was the first time men flew on a Saturn V, the tallest, heaviest, and most powerful rocket ever built. Following the three-day cruise to the moon, the spacecraft entered lunar orbit on Christmas Eve.
Along the way, Lovell, Anders, and Borman famously snapped pictures of the Earth rising over the Moon, and on Christmas Eve they broadcast a message live from the Moon: a reading from the book of Genesis.
One of the "Earthrise" photos, taken by Anders on a Hasselblad camera, became legendary. "I just happened to have one with color film in it and a long lens," he recalled. "All I did was to keep snapping… It's not a very good photo as photos go, but it's a special one. It was the first statement of our planet Earth and it was particularly impressive because it's contrasted against this startling horizon… After all the training and studying we'd done as pilots and engineers to get to the moon safely and get back, [and] as human beings to explore moon orbit, what we really discovered was the planet Earth."
As for the choice to read from Genesis: "We were told that on Christmas Eve we would have the largest audience that had ever listened to a human voice," Borman said in 2008. "And the only instructions that we got from NASA was to do something appropriate."
On the suggestion of a newspaper reporter's wife, the three men decided to read the first ten verses of Genesis. Lovell noted that it "is the foundation of many of the world's religions, not just the Christian religion."
In 1970, Madalyn Murray O'Hair, the famous atheist activist, sued the United States government for the Bible reading as a violation of the First Amendment. The suit was dismissed by the Supreme Court due to lack of jurisdiction (NASA has advised against public religious observances in space ever since).
The crew circled the moon ten times on Christmas Eve. On Christmas morning, they burned their engines to escape lunar orbit and return home. To a mission control waiting anxiously for word that the maneuver had worked, Lovell radioed. "Roger, please be informed there is a Santa Claus."
After 20 hours in lunar orbit, they had no problems firing their main engine. They began their three-day cruise towards Earth, and splashed down on December 27, 1968. A few months later, American astronauts would land on the moon.