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Space club boasts mission, membership that is out of this world

This is a club so exclusive that Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev cannot join. The money of Donald Trump won't buy a membership card. Michael Jackson can't ``moonwalk'' his way into meetings. Yes, the Association of Space Explorers is select because the only way to join is to have traveled beyond the stratosphere.

The perspective gained from looking down on Earth has united 72 astronauts and cosmonauts from 17 nations in an organization that combines informal lobbying with public education.

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One of the founders, Russell (Rusty) Schweickart, a civilian copilot on board Apollo 9's trip to the moon, describes the group as ``interested in promoting the use of space technology to solve global problems involving energy and the environment, while bringing back the experience of flying in space to the general public.''

In its work, the group tries to distinguish between space science and space politics. It has urged manned exploration of Mars, for example.

The Strategic Defense Initiative, however, is off limits.

``One of the agreements is to not address issues of national policy, or criticize national leaders or programs,'' Mr. Schweickart explains.

The next major project, says Schweickart, is getting the United States and the Soviet Union prepared for rescue missions of stranded ships. Currently, neither side has compatible docking systems. With European and Japanese manned-space projects on the drawing boards, timing is critical, he says.

``People will die in space unless there some kind of agreement,'' Schweikart says.

But not all of the 208 potential members want to join. Former astronaut Frank Borman says he did not join the Association of Space Explorers, because ``I don't want to be a professional astronaut.''

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No current astronauts are members either. NASA says there is no policy to prohibit astronauts from joining, but some have decided it would be difficult to be members without appearing to represent NASA's views.

``I wouldn't want to be put in an awkward position,'' says current astronaut Ken Cameron.

Until recently, says John Logsdon, head of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, the group ``has been pretty much talking to itself.'' However, he believes it has the potential to be an effective space advocate ``because it is a potent symbol of the international character of space.''

To bring the space experience down to earth, the association collaborated on ``The Home Planet,'' a collection of 150 color NASA and Soviet photos of Earth as seen from space.

Also included are musings of astronauts on their thoughts and feelings as they orbited Earth. The $40 coffee-table book is being released in nine countries, including the US and USSR.

One of the predominant themes of speeches given by the members is the ecological fragility of Earth.

``We are the only ones who have seen the Earth from 50 miles up, so we feel its responsibility,'' says Aleksandr Aleksandrov, a Soviet member.

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