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Let's hear it for planetary exploration

As Voyager 1 heads for the stars, Voyager project scientists and managers are looking wistfully to the American public for appreciation and support. They are approaching a five-year hiatus in a planetary exploration program that has turned objects seen indistinctly by telescope into places to be known and studied in intimate detail. In a sense, they have made the planetary system part of humanity's neighborhood. With the visit of the second Voyager to Saturn next August, this epoch will end. Skimpy funding and lack of launch facilities due to delays in the space shuttle program have made it impossible to visit another plant for at least half a decade.

Hence the appeal for public support to encourage Congress and the new administration to revitalize the planetary program.

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During the Saturn postencounter press conference, when asked what the program needs, Angelo Guastaferro, director of the Planetary Program Division of the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), offered this suggestion: "How about the public writing to the Congress, writing to the Office of Management and Budget, writing to the new President, and saying, "Thank you, Mr. President. Voyager was great.' . . . Keep those cards and letters coming in," he added, "We need you."

The space scientists are appealing to what they consider their natural constituency -- the people whose perspective on themselves and their home planet is enriched and enlarged by the new discoveries. Bruce Murray, director of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, explained: "The constituency for what we do is not simply scientists like myself. . . . It's not simply the aerospace industry or NASA. It is us,m the people of the United States."

He added that the next five years, with no new images of other worlds coming in, will test how strongly the people of the United States do wnat to excel in space. Ho much the US is to do in space for the rest of this century will be determined in large part by policies set during those five years. That is when new starts must be made on planetary exploration projets that typically take a decade to mature.

In saying this, space officials such as Guastaferro and Murray don't mean planetary science will be dormant for five years. Much research will be done on data in hand. At least some new programs will be started. But if planetary exploration is to regain its former pace and maintain US leaderhips in the field , they believe that a strong showing of public support is needed.

Thus it is that the planetary effort needs your help. If you want to respond , you can write to:

* Director, Office of Management and Budget. Old Executive Office Building. Washington, D.C. 20503.

* President-elect Ronald Reagan. c/o The White House. 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, D.C. 20500.

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* And, of course, your senators and congressman.

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