The U.S. space agency, NASA, is celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 8 space mission. The spacecraft's three-man crew conducted the first mission to orbit the Moon.
On Christmas Eve, 1968, astronauts aboard craft issued a live television broadcast from space. Lunar module pilot William Anders read from the Bible. "In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form . . . ."
Millions of people around the world saw the broadcast, which included the first live images taken from space of the Moon's surface and the Earth. Magazines and newspapers reprinted photographs of the Earth from a distance, showing blue oceans, swirling clouds and the continents.
The images became a lasting memory of the first manned space mission to leave Earth orbit and circle the Moon. The Apollo 8 mission also played a key role in preparing for future space missions, including the first manned lunar landing by the crew of Apollo 11, less than a year later.
At a recent event in Washington, Apollo 8 command module pilot James Lovell recalled that his crew was trained to study the Moon's surface. "The mission of Apollo 8 was really to check the navigation and check for landing spots, the flat areas, the sea that would give the people who would attempt the first landing the greatest chance of survival," he said.
Even after many months of training, the decision for Apollo 8 to visit the Moon was made only four months ahead of launch. NASA officials had planned for the crew to conduct a low Earth orbit flight, similar to earlier Apollo missions. But officials revised the mission following the success of recent missions unmanned probes by the Soviet Union.
Apollo 8 Commander Frank Borman said the rivalry between the two nations was a major motivation. "NASA now likes to talk about scientific exploration and our lunar experts talk about picking up all the rocks in the world. The reason we went to the Moon on Apollo 8 was to beat the Russians," he said.
In 1957, the Soviet Union became the first country to launch an artificial satellite; the United States was the first to land a man on the Moon, in 1969.
The space race between the United States and Soviet Union is over. Today, NASA and the Russian space agency are key partners on the International Space Station. That partnership may be crucial in years to come as the United States prepares to send manned missions back to the Moon.