Amy Shira Teitel writes that Apollo 8 was not done for the purpose of inspiration, though that was a huge side effect.
Here’s what I wrote in the book:
…despite all of the precautions, NASA did demonstrate its willingness to risk the lives of its astronauts, when in a daring mission, it won the space race in December of 1968 with the Apollo 8 mission around the moon. What was daring about it?
The previous April, there had been a partial disaster during an early test of the new Saturn V rocket, whose express purpose was to send astronauts to the moon. It suffered from the same “pogo” problems that had earlier afflicted the Titan, almost shaking the vehicle apart during ascent, with some structural failure in the first stage. Two of the second-stage’s five engines failed, and the single third-stage engine failed to reignite in orbit. Von Braun’s team went to work to sort out the problems, and a few months later, after some ground tests, declared it ready to fly again. NASA was under some pressure because there were rumors that the Soviets were going to send some cosmonauts to circumnavigate the moon with the Zond spacecraft by the end of the year (they had already sent some animals on such a trip).
While it wouldn’t have been a loss of the space race, the goal of which was to land on the moon, and not just fly around it, being beaten to that next first would have been another blow to the national psyche after Sputnik and Gagarin, and the first space walk. The lunar module wasn’t ready yet, and not expected to be until the spring of 1969, so NASA decided to scrap their plan of doing an earth-orbit rehearsal, and instead decided to go for the moon on the very next flight of the Saturn V, and without another unmanned test flight despite the problems on the previous flight. They were willing to throw the dice, and the astronauts (Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders) were willing to risk their lives, because it was important. The whole purpose of the program was to demonstrate that our system was superior to the Soviets, and to be afraid to fly would have rendered it pointless. It is hard to imagine today’s NASA taking such a risk with its astronauts’ lives, because nothing NASA is doing today is perceived as being sufficiently important.
[Cross posted at Safe Is Not An Option]