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No matter what the Russians do, the U.S. astronauts should be on their way moonward on or soon after Dec. 21. Colonel Frank Borman and Major William Anders, both Air Force officers, and Navy Captain James Lovell are already at Cape Kennedy, spending 16 hours a day in preparing for every detail of a complex mission that has been planned and plotted to the last second. They spend 20 hours a week in simulators, training their minds and hands to react almost automatically to every conceivable contingency.
Again and again, at endless conferences, the three men review their flight plan, talk through the sequence of actions that they must take to carry out normal maneuvers, the emergency measures that they must follow to correct equipment failures. For at critical points during their trip, a balky rocket could leave them stranded in orbit around the moon or drive them into collision with the lunar surface. By-the time they are fired from Cape Kennedy's launch pad 39A by the world's most powerful rocket, Saturn 5, Borman, Lovell and Anders will be the most thoroughly prepared adventurers ever to have dared the unknown.
Generating 7,500,000 Ibs. of thrust, Saturn will thunder to an altitude of 38 miles and a speed of 6,000 m.p.h. in only 2½ minutes. Then, having carried out the herculean task of lifting a 3,100-ton, 363-ft.-long vehicle through the thickest layers of the atmosphere, the giant booster rocket will drop away, and the S-2 second stage will take over. With its five engines producing 1,125,000 Ibs. of thrust, the S-2 will accelerate the shortened vehicle to a speed of 14,000 m.p.h. and hurtle it to an altitude of 119 miles. After the S-2 is jettisoned in turn, the third-stage S-4B will ignite, using its 225,000-lb.-thrust engine to increase the spaceship's speed to 17,400 m.p.h. and insert it into a "parking" orbit around the earth.
Once the ship is in orbit, the astronauts and ground controllers will check out all the systems on board, making certain that they are operating properly and that the duplicate and backup systems are in working order. On their second revolution around the earth, if no problems have arisen, the Apollo crew will reignite the S-4B rocket engine over the Pacific near Hawaii. In a 5-min. 11-sec. burning period, the S-4B will accelerate to an "escape" velocity of 24,200 m.p.h., pushing Apollo out of earth orbit and off toward the moon.