From the Tet Offensive in Vietnam and the riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago to the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, Americans endured an unprecedented series of tragic events in 1968. On Christmas Eve, the tumultuous year ended on a hopeful note when the Apollo 8 space mission transmitted the first images of Earth taken from space to millions of Americans on live television.
The mission was part of NASA's Apollo space program, initiated by President John F. Kennedy in 1961 in the hopes of "landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth."
Originally planned as a test mission with a lower Earth orbit, the Apollo 8 mission was ambitiously altered by NASA in August 1968. The new plan, to complete a manned lunar orbit before the Soviet Union did so, meant a shorter training period for the Apollo 8 crew of mission commander Frank Borman, command module pilot James Lovell and lunar module pilot William Anders. Despite the rushed schedule, NASA successfully prepared the astronaut crew and completed the development of the Apollo 8 space capsule in time for launch.
The Apollo 8 was launched from Cape Kennedy, Fla., at 7:50 a.m. on Dec. 21, 1968, with help from the massive 363-foot Saturn V rocket.
While in space, the crew used a small black-and-white camera to send a total of six television transmissions back to Earth, but it was the live broadcast on Christmas Eve that proved to be the most memorable. As the Apollo 8 orbited the moon for the ninth time, Col. Borman introduced the crew and described the moon's barren terrain. Then, the crew took turns reading from the Bible's Book of Genesis while millions of Americans watched in awe as the first full images of Earth from space appeared on their television sets.
In addition to the live television broadcast, the mission commander snapped one of the most famous and influential photographs in history on Christmas Eve. Known as "Earthrise," the color photo shows a crisp view of Earth rising over the lunar horizon. The photo would later be credited with helping to jump-start the environmental movement and the founding of Earth Day.
On Dec. 27, 1968, the Apollo 8 capsule returned to Earth, where millions of Americans celebrated the crew as the first humans to orbit the moon.
The Apollo 8 changed the way mankind viewed the planet and paved the way for 1969's historic Apollo 11 mission, which fulfilled President Kennedy's goal.
Visitors to the Senator John Heinz History Center's new exhibition, "1968: The Year That Rocked America," can see Apollo 8 mission artifacts, on loan from the Smithsonian's National Air & Space Museum, and a life-size 15-foot replica of the lunar module. Information: www.heinzhistorycenter.org.