Poised for the Leap

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FROM the moment when living organisms appeared in the seas billions of years ago, they seemed driven by an instinctive urge to move beyond their own environment. Out of the dark waters they groped across aeons, toward the light and land and air. Like those remote ancestors, man, too, has striven continually to seek what he has never known before. He has ranged restlessly across the surface of his world; he has traveled back into the primordial oceans; he has learned to fly through his now familiar skies. For the past seven years, he has probed the vacuum of space, soaring as high as 853 miles above the earth. Now, after billions of years of evolution—and, incredibly, within the present blink of history—he is ready to make the great escape from his own planet.

This month, fulfilling the yearnings and predictions of untold generations, man will attempt to propel himself across 230,000 miles of emptiness in a bold voyage toward a shining and beckoning target: the moon. Before December ends, if all goes well, he will circle the moon and look down from his spaceship at lunar craters and "seas" as little as 70 miles below. Staring up, he will see the dominant feature of the black lunar sky —the blue-green, partly illuminated globe that is his home: the earth.

The sheer drama of man's first flight to the moon—the spectacle, the perils and the uncertainty—has been heightened by the prospects of a close race between the U.S. and Russia. The U.S. has announced that on Dec. 21 it hopes to launch three astronauts aboard Apollo 8. According to the projected schedule, they will circle the moon ten times, starting on Christmas Eve, then return to the earth, where they will land 21 days later. Russian plans, as usual, are cloaked in secrecy. But many Western experts who have pieced together clues from Moscow rumors, recent Soviet space shots and past Soviet behavior are convinced that at least one, and perhaps as many as three cosmonauts will attempt to loop around the moon and return early in December. Although such a shot would be far less sophisticated than the Apollo 8 mission, it would be an undeniable victory for the Soviets.

If the Russians do indeed plan to steal the limelight from Apollo 8, their best opportunity for launching a manned circumlunar shot will occur during a brief period beginning around the first week in December. At that time, a spacecraft could be launched in daylight, streak around the moon, and return for a landing in Russia or the Indian Ocean during daylight hours, when it is easier to locate and reach the downed craft. The mission almost certainly will follow closely the trail of Zond-5 and Zond-6, the first craft to circle the moon and return safely to earth.

Stranded in Orbit

Tass, the Russian news agency, has confirmed that both Zonds were preparatory shots for a manned flight and carried living creatures to test radiation effects near the moon. U.S. scientists suspect that Cosmonaut Georgy Beregovoy successfully tested life-support systems for a manned lunar mission during the earth-orbit flight of Soyuz-3. If so, a Soviet lunar spacecraft may finally be man-rated—ready to carry passengers to the moon in December.

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