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50 years on, the Christmas message from the moon that saved 1968

 The famous 'Earthrise' photo from Apollo 8, the first manned mission to the moon (NASA)
The famous 'Earthrise' photo from Apollo 8, the first manned mission to the moon (NASA) (KTUU)
Published: Dec. 24, 2018 at 5:46 PM AKST
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50 years ago — 1968 — a year filled with political turmoil, division, and tragedy was coming to a close.

On Jan. 30, the North Vietnamese launched the Tet Offensive, raising doubts about President Lyndon Johnson's claims that the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese forces were winning the Vietnam War.

In February, Walter Cronkite reported that the U.S. war effort was "mired in stalemate."

On April 4, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated by James Earl Ray while King stood on a balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.

On June 4, Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles after winning the California primary.

From Aug. 26 - Aug. 29, violence and civil unrest marred the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

On Nov. 5, after a divisive and bitter campaign, Richard Nixon won the presidency, beating Hubert Humphrey by just 0.7 percent of the popular vote, while segregationist candidate George Wallace carried five Southern states.

And amid all the turmoil, on Dec. 21, 1968, three men — Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders — lifted off into the unknown atop a Saturn V Rocket on the first manned mission to orbit the moon.

The Saturn V shot the crew into Earth's orbit before firing them on a path to the moon at 10,800 meters per second — more than 24,000 miles per hour.

"I thought I had one chance in three of a successful flight, a successful mission. And then one chance in three of not surviving," Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders told NBC's Harry Smith recently.

Three days later, on Christmas Eve 1968, Apollo 8 entered lunar orbit.

Anders' assignment was to shoot photos of the moon's surface.

On the crew's third pass, Commander Frank Borman rolled the position of the spacecraft to get a different view.

"It was in the turning-around, looking-forward process when I saw this thing coming out of the corner of my eye in the window. It turned out it was the Earth," Anders said.

"Oh my god look at that picture over there. The earth is coming up. Wow that's pretty!" Anders said on his radio headset in 1968.

It was the first "Earthrise" witnessed in human history.

"So when the Earth came up over the lunar horizon, that's when it really impressed me, as to how much more delicate the Earth was, and colorful," Anders told NBC.

Apollo 8 soon began beaming back grainy images of the lunar surface to an audience of a billion people back home. In the second of two television broadcasts, the crew of Apollo 8 read a Christmas message to the people of Earth.

"In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth, and the earth was without form, and void." — Genesis 1:1

"We were told that on Christmas Eve we would have the largest audience that had ever listened to a human voice," recalled Borman during 40th anniversary celebrations in 2008. "And the only instructions that we got from NASA was to do something appropriate."

Three days later, on Dec. 27, 1968, the crew splashed down in the North Pacific Ocean.

According to crew members and historians, millions of

were received by the crew members, but one stuck out.

It's exact wording is hard to pin down, and its sender unknown, but in all its variations, is a short and

:

"Thank you for saving 1968."