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Space exploration faces an uncertain future

A strange thing happened on the way to Saturn. In the four years since the Voyager spacecraft blasted off from Earth, the tide of US public opinion toward space exploration appears to have shifted.

Since the latter days of the Apollo mission, a majority of Americans have felt the United States was spending too much on space. Around 1976 or so, opinion polls began to show a shift in the decade-long pattern of disapproval. In 1978, the number of US adults who believed that the nation's space program was adequate or too small surpassed those who felt too much was being spent. And the most recent polls now show that 60 to 70 percent support space exploration.

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Of course, since that time the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's budget has shrunk from 4.5 percent to 0.8 percent of the total federal budget and decreased by 42 percent when inflation is taken into account. But there are some strong indications that Americans in general are suddenly developing an unprecedented enthusiasm for space endeavors.

One such indication is the success of the Public Broadcasting System television series "Cosmos," which dealt with the questions of the origin of the universe, the solar system, Earth, and life. When it was aired last year, it became the most widely watched series on US public television. Some 700,000 copies of the book based on the series have already been sold.

Carl Sagan, the Cornell University astronomer and narrator of "Cosmos," is also cofounder of the year-old Planetary Society, now the largest space-interest group in the world. With a membership of 80,000, the society is the fastest-growing public-membership organization of any type in the last decade, according to a Washington consulting company for such groups.

"The tremendous growth of the society is proof of what I and Bruce [Murray, director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and cofounder of the Planetary Society ] felt intuitively from our public speaking, that there are many people out there who have a sincere interest in planetary exploration but no way to participate," Dr. Sagan says.

This week, as Voyager 2 swung around Saturn and began its 1.5 billion-mile trip to Uranus, the Planetary Society held a "Planetfest" to celebrate the accomplishments of the past two decades of exploration, which have given mankind a close view of all the planets known to the ancients. "To our ancestors, these moving points of light, from Mercury to Saturn, were mysteries or gods. Today, we know them as worlds, awaiting further exploration and, eventually, a human presence," the Planetfest program proclaimed.

The festival in the Pasadena Civic Center included a musical concert conducted by John Williams, the "Star Wars" composer and Boston Pops conductor, who donated his time for the cause. Several hundred space boosters paid $150 each to attend the concert and a black-tie banquet under the murky, southern California night sky. Planetfest-goers toured showings of space art and displays of the photographs returned by various spacecraft; watched live pictures beamed down from Voyager 2; and attended speeches on such topics as careers in space, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, space-interest groups, and the future of planetary exploration.

Dr. Sagan said, "I've really been struck by the spectrum of people joining the Society: the very young and very old; blue-collar workers and the well-to-do; those with only little education and those with a great deal." An example of this is the range of people on the society's board of advisers. This includes entertainers Johnny Carson and Paul Newman as well as John Gardner, founder of Common Cause. They are joined by Isaac Asimov, the science fiction writer; James Michener, the novelist; Harrison Schmidt, the senator and former astronaut; and Philip Morrison, professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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"Our constituency is not those under 25 but the middle-aged and middle-class, those who are old enough to care for the consequence of their labor," Dr. Murray maintains. These people see planetary exploration as an example of the greatness of the United States, something that gives purpose to our society and makes up for other, more negative aspects of modern living, he says.

A survey released recently by the National Science Foundation (NSF) gives some support to his views. "The public doesn't think exploring space is harmful ," a foundation official explains. "They also think it doesn't have much to do with their lives." When asked to pick the most important areas of research, space exploration ranks near the bottom, this researcher says. Still, people like the idea in the abstract, he says.

Age, education, sex, and region are all important in how strongly people support space exploration, the NSF study has found.

Those 25 to 34 years of age -- the sputnik generation -- are the strongest supporters. Those 18 to 24 are more moderate in their support, while senior citizens are least supportive.

Eighty-five percent of the college-educated are space supporters, while only 32 percent of those with fewer than nine years of education are ethusiasts. In addition, less than half the women surveyed favored endeavors and were most likely to see some possible harm in it.

One reason people rank space exploration lower than other forms of research is their perception of its cost, an NSF official explains.

This points to one problem with polls of this sort. They lump manned and unmanned space together. Drs. Sagan and Murray are trying to build support specifically for unmanned planetary exploration of the sort exemplified by the Voyager spacecraft. This represents only 5 percent of NASA's total budget. The Voyager missions, which gave mankind its first real look at Jupiter, Saturn, and perhaps Uranus and Neptune as well, cost the Americans about $5 per household.

This increase in interest in space exploration comes at a time when the US effort is experiencing a long fiscal drought. The planetary program has been squeezed between a constant or declining space agency budget and the drain of the cost of constructing the space shuttle. As a result, there will be no new planetary events for several years.

Budgetary constraints make it appear unlikely that Americans will join Europeans, Japanese, and Soviet in a rendezvous with Halley's Comet in 1986. By that time, Voyager II should be flying by Uranus.

The US may launch another mission to Jupiter in 1985. This will involve an orbiter around the giant planet and a probe that will penetrate its atmosphere. But this requires the development of a powerful upper stage for the space shuttle, a program that has already been killed once. Space agency officials still appear confident that the administration and Congress will give them enough money to do this.

NASA had also intended to launch a sophisticated satellite to Venus in 1986 designed to orbit the veiled planet and map its surface by radar with as much detail as Mars has been mapped with optical telescopes. The Reagan administration, however, cut the planetary program by twice as much as it did NASA in general. This caused a delay in the Venus mission launch date to 1988.

"People only appreciate something when they no longer have it," says Geoffrey Briggs, deputy director of lunar and planetary programs at NASA.