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New group tries to light fire under lagging interest in exploring space

"COME AND JOIN US FOR THE ULTIMATE ADVENTURE" begins a glossy brochure that you may receive in the mail within the next year. Filling the rest of the page is the orange face of Io, the strangest of Jupiter's moons, with one of its monumental volcanic plumes clearly visible on its horizon.

The ultimate adventure referred to is the exploration of the solar system. The organization soliciting your participation is a newly formed nonprofit group called the Planetary Society.

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Modeled after the Cousteau Society and the early National Geographic Society, the Planetary Society is the idea of Corneli astonomer Carl Sagan, narrator of the PBS series "Cosmos," and Bruce Murray, director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

"It grew out of the fact that both of us . . . have come to the conclusion that there is a very large group of people 'out there' who think space exploration is good, with a capital 'G,'" says Dr. Murray.

At the same time, both scientists are acutely aware many politicians are convinced the public is not interested in exploring the planets or searching for possible radio signals from alien civilizations. This preconception stems from public response during the latter days of the Apollo mission.

"while an organization [like the Planetary Society] can't change the direction of major US policy, it can make clear that there is significant public interest in space exploration and dispel that artificial negativism prevalent today in Washington, D.C.," Dr. Murray believes.

Due to the current political view on the National Aeronautics and Space Administratio(s (NASA) planetary program, the Voyager mission -- which recently returned the best pictures yet taken of Saturn -- is the last major planetary exploration effort for the foreseeable future.

Drs. Murray and Sagan hope to reverse this situation by developing a constituency for these efforts and, in the longer term, by providing funds for related research.

They also hope to be able to inject a greater element of popular appeal into planetary exploration itself. They are concerned about development in NASA of what they see as an elitist attitude. This attitude is believed to have been the cause of extreme initial reluctance to name one of the first space shuttles "Enterprise," after the spaceship in the popular television show, "Star Trek," despite significant public demand. It is also believed to be a factor in NASA's refusal to authorize a solar sail program. The solar sail is a space propulsion system using the pressure of sunlight rather than chemical fuel for navigating between the planets.

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"The fact that something is popular is a liability," Dr. Murray complains.

It was for these reasons that, about a year ago, the two scientists began the new society.

Their first step was to assemble a "board of advisers." They brought together a diverse group. It includes predictable members: science fiction writers Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury, involved scientists such as James Van Allen and Harold C. Urey, and ex-astronaut Harrison Schmitt, now a US senator from New Mexico. But there are also the unexpected: actor Paul Newman and entertainer Johnny Carson; John Gardner, the founder of Common Cause; and Shirley M. Hufstedler, the first US secretary of education.

Next they began a series of direct mailings. "We've had a hgh response. We're very encouraged," says Murray. They had hoped to establish a base of 20, 000 to 40,000 members. Now it looks as if they may be able to come closer to 100,000 with a mailing in the millions next spring.

In return for for the $15 annual membership fee, the society is offering a variety of benefits. There will be a newsletter with inside information on planetary missions and new discoveries. Selections of the best pictures taken by spacecraft such as Voyager will be made available to members. And there will be invitations to meetings, lectures, and films on space exploration.

"Right now we're primarily organized for growth. Once we've reached our natural size, then we will have to transform ourself," explains Murray. At that point they hope to be in a financial position where they can support research, in the same way the National Geographic Society funds anthropoligical and wildlife studies.

The use of radio telescopes to search for signals from possible extraterrestrial civilizations is one project high on the list. So is the development of the solar sail.

If, for economic or other reasons, planetary exploration comes to a complete halt, Murray envisions the society, like the monasteries in the Middle Ages, becoming a repository of knowledge and information that will keep alive "the vision of what we can do as a species."

To the founders of the planetary Society, and presumably to those who become members, "Spacecraft missions to the planets are of great historical importance. A thousand years from now all that will be remembered about our time may be that this was the epoch when human beings began, seriously and scientifically, to understand the cosmos around them."

(Further information may be obtained from The Planetary Society, Box 3599, Pasadena, Calif., 91103.)