Apollo 8 was originally planned to be a test of the Lunar Module in Earth orbit in early 1969. But in September of 1968, the Soviets had sent a couple of animals around the Moon – and brought them back safely. Clearly, they were well ahead of us in getting to the Moon. When the LEM kept having engineering problems, the manager of the Apollo Spacecraft Program Office, George Low, suggested that they simply send the Command & Service Module combination into lunar orbit. It would mean rushing things, but it was something that would have to be done anyway.
Apollo 8 lifted off at 7:51 AM EST on December 21, with Commander Frank Borman, Command Module Pilot Jim Lovell, and Lunar Module Pilot Bill Anders aboard. Once at the Moon, they orbited it ten times, checking equipment. Bill Anders did most of the reconnaissance photography, checking potential landing sites.
On December 24, they gave a special broadcast, with over a billion people listening in.
The Command Module splashed down in the Pacific Ocean at 8°8′N 165°1′W at 10:51:42 EST December 27. Total mission duration was 6 days, 3 hours, 42 seconds. Apollo 8 came back with a ton of “Firsts”: First manned flight of a Saturn V. First launch from the Kennedy Space Center. First manned mission beyond Earth orbit. First manned mission to reach the Moon…. From a technical standpoint, this was a much greater achievement than Apollo 11. By July of 1969, all the engineering problems had been solved. Apollo 8 was when we proved we could actually send men to the Moon and bring them back safely.