Apollo took longer strides in 1968, perhaps, than in any previous year. In April, fifteen months after the fire, a Saturn V carried an unmanned command module into earth orbit to test launch vehicle and spacecraft systems and to simulate reentry from a lunar voyage. Only months before Apollo 7 tested the redesigned command module with a crew in October, officials at the Manned Spacecraft Center began to think about a much more ambitious flight. After selling their proposal to Headquarters, they began making plans to send a crew to the vicinity of the moon. For Christmas 1968 NASA gave the world a present to remember: live television pictures and oral commentary from the crew of the Apollo 8 spacecraft in lunar orbit.
On the science side, progress was less spectacular. Technical problems with the lunar surface experiments were largely overcome, but doubts about the astronauts' ability to unload and deploy the instruments in the time available eventually caused program officials to substitute a smaller science package on the first lunar mission. Several of the systems for handling lunar samples in the lunar receiving laboratory caused major delays, but when the year ended the staff was gearing up for a full-scale simulation.