Apollo 8 flew barely a decade into the Space Age. It was a moment when public enthusiasm for human space exploration ran high—but also was poised to decline. And it was a time when space technology was starting to transform everyday life.

"Apollo 8 was the high-water mark of public interest in human spaceflight," says Howard McCurdy, author of Space and the American Imagination and a public affairs professor at American University in Washington, D.C. He notes polls from the era showing people saying the U.S. government should "do more" in space peaked in late 1968, right around  the time the moon-orbiting mission flew.

Indeed, that was the only time in the late 1960s that "do more" and "do less" responses were essentially even, at about 30 percent. (The polls also gave a third choice, of maintaining the same level of space activity.) In 1969, even before Apollo 11 landed on the moon, the "do more" responses fell sharply to near the 20 percent level, and "do less" resumed being the favored answer, garnering around 40 percent.

Although it may be counterintuitive that Apollo 8, rather than the moon landing seven months later, should mark the high point of public support for the space program, McCurdy sees some reasons for this. Apollo 8 "was the first time humans left the Earth and came under the influence of the gravitational pull of another body," he notes, making Apollo 11 in some regards a repetition of the feat. Plus, Apollo 8's timing on Christmas Eve and the crew's reading from the book of Genesis gave the mission "huge emotional content."

Furthermore, the NASA budget was declining, contributing to a sense that the Apollo project was winding down. "Recall that 1966 was the peak year of funding for NASA—ever in its lifetime, when you include inflation," says David Whalen, chairman of the space studies department at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. "Then it immediately went down in '67 and was still going down in '68. It had dropped precipitously. So even when you had a success like Apollo 8, the funding was already going down."

The massive expenditures on space in the mid-1960s were driven by the Cold War race to send people to the moon before the Soviets did. "We didn't go the moon for Teflon pans or lunar rocks," mission astronaut William Anders said during an appearance last month at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., "We went to the moon to beat the 'dirty Commies'."

Such a focus, however, may have ensured that there would be diminished public interest in space exploration once the U.S. beat the Soviets to the punch. "The next year we landed on the moon and then 'okay, we're done,'" says Whalen. "There was a real attitude among the nonspace cadets that, well, we've landed on the moon, so we've accomplished what we set out to do, so we don't have to spend any more money on space."

The Apollo program fit into a sweeping vision of human space exploration—sometimes called the "von Braun paradigm" after rocket scientist Wernher von Braun—that included not just lunar expeditions but winged spaceships, orbiting space stations and piloted missions to Mars. "The general vision was established in the 1950s before we flew humans in space," McCurdy says.

By the late 1960s, in McCurdy's view, a degree of skepticism about such plans was taking hold. "People, particularly the 'do less' contingent in the public opinion polls, had begun to question why we were doing these things," he says, but "there was not a well-formulated alternative to the so-called von Braun paradigm." As for space probes, "the technology of robotics at that time was fairly primitive." The Viking missions to Mars in 1976, adds McCurdy, were the "great turning point for unmanned space."

Satellite technology, for its part, was just starting to affect everyday life at the time of Apollo 8. The Intelsat consortium, led by U.S. company Comsat, operated communications satellites that handled a growing share of international phone traffic. "If you wanted to make a telephone call from New York to London, you probably went on the satellite," Whalen says. "There were still some issues with delay and echo, but there were still more links by satellite" than through terrestrial lines.

Satellites were not yet widely used in television broadcasting, due to the higher bandwidth and costs involved, and most people still received only a handful of channels. "The ability to start binding the world together—it hadn't quite happened by December 1968 because we didn't have enough satellites up there," Whalen says. "But people already saw that within a few years there would be no place on Earth that you couldn't get a satellite connection to any other place on Earth."

The Apollo missions helped spur the growth of satellite communications, as NASA signed on as a major customer of the Intelsat system. The communications network supporting Apollo 8 included Intelsat satellites, one of which was an Intelsat 3 that was launched days before the mission and which performed among its first tasks the transmission of the astronauts' Christmas Eve greeting from lunar orbit to Europe.

Four decades later, there has been a role reversal of sorts. Satellite communications, along with orbiting weather and GPS systems, are so widespread now that consumers largely take them for granted, whereas human spaceflight, limited to low Earth orbit, rarely gets a degree of attention even close to that on the night before Christmas 1968.