The US planetary exploration program has become something of an endangered species in recent years: Scientists and space buffs have been alarmed by the cutback in new planet probes.
The problem, at least as far as renowned Cornell University astronomer and author Carl Sagan is concerned, is that budget- slashing members of Congress "say they think the program is a great idea, personally, but they also say they think it's unpopular and politically risky to support."
The solution, Dr. Sagan hopes, is the Planetary Society, a just-formed, nonprofit organization which aims, for the first time ever, to bring together professional and amateur space enthusiasts as a visible -- and vocal -- special-interest group.
"The clear response is to show Congress that it's not politically risky," maintains Dr. Sagan, "which is absolutely obvious from the popularity of the theme in films, magazines, and books.
"But if it takes a society to prove it," he continues, "then that's what we're going to do."
Recent planetary probes have unearthed a wealth of surprising scientific data , as well as spectacular, never-before-seen pictures of planets like Jupiter, Mars, and Venus.
But, concerned over a program slowdown, which signals an end to new planetary missions until at least 1984, scientists like Dr. Sagan and Dr. Bruce Murray, director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, are counting on the public to help spur new interest -- and new investment -- in planetary exploration.
The two men, co-founders of the society, say that despite the current budgetary- minded mood of the country, they believe America's deep fascination with outer space is as strong and widespread as ever.
As proof, they cite the smashing popularity of such space fantasies as "Star Wars." Dr. Sagan points to hundreds of letters he says he has received from a cross section of people -- teen-agers, senior citizens, longtime space enthusiasts, and neophytes -- who want to know how they can get involved with the planetary program.
Already, the group has attracted a stellar board of directors, which includes authors Isaac Asimov, Norman Cousins, and James Michener; entertainer Johnny Carson; Secretary of Education Shirley Hufstedler; Richard Berendzen, president of the American University, and Harry Ashmore, a Pulitzer prize-winner and former editor in chief of the Encyclopedia Brittanica.
A test mailing to about 50,000 individuals and scientific institutions is scheduled this summer. It will be followed by a full-scale kickoff campaign this fall which, Dr. Sagan cheerfully admits, will neatly coincide with the Voyager 1 flyby of Saturn in November.
Planetary society officials, however, hope to do more than act as a political bolster for the sagging planetary program. Depending on how many members the group attracts -- 100,000 is the target -- and how much money it raises, some funds may be channeled to help stimulate new research and projects.
A top choice for such aid, Dr. Sagam says, may be a radio search for extraterrestial intelligence -- a project which has been penciled in and erased out of the US planetary program budget for three years.
For a $20 annual fee, members will receive a newsletter updating planetary projects and new discoveries, and will have access to some of the thousands of pictures which have been gathered from past planetary missions.