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Selling Mars

June 25, 1989|KATHRYN PHILLIPS | Kathryn Phillips' last story for this magazine was "Closing In on Cancer."

LOUIS Friedman, one-time rocket scientist and now, as head of the Pasadena-based Planetary Society, one of the nation's most vocal cheerleaders for planetary exploration, had waited a long time for this moment and wanted to savor it in solitude. Launches always made him nervous, but this one, on a morning last April, was special. If it worked, it would mark the end of more than a decade of waiting for the United States to return to planetary exploration. If it didn't, it would be just another on a list of disappointments NASA has handed to Friedman in the past 17 years.

He moved a few feet from his friends among the crowd of spectators at Cape Canaveral and positioned himself in clear view of the launch pad. Then he stared into the distance at the space shuttle Atlantis, which was scheduled momentarily to take the spacecraft Magellan into Earth orbit and then send it on its way to Venus.

As a 31-year-old engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1972, Friedman's first supervisory job was study leader and program manager for the then-unnamed Magellan project. Had anyone told him then that he would be a grandfather by the time Magellan flew, he wouldn't have believed them. But since the mid-1970s, he had gradually become disillusioned with the false starts and delays in the American space program.

This day, he had flown from California to Florida to watch the launch and take part in a panel discussion, a sort of celebration of America's return to space exploration. Standing alone at the edge of the crowd as the countdown entered its last minute, he half expected another delay. An optimist about most things, he had never had much faith in the wisdom of using the space shuttle instead of conventional rockets to launch spacecraft.

At T-minus 30 seconds, the countdown stopped. A malfunction had been detected; the shuttle engines shut down. Friedman was disappointed, and he couldn't help but immediately see the irony.

"When that thing didn't go, and I was looking out from the causeway, I could also see a Titan (rocket) the Air Force was getting ready for another launch," he recalls a few weeks later. "Boy, did I wish we were using that."

A week later, the shuttle carrying Magellan successfully took off. By then, Friedman was back in his office watching the event on television with his staff at the Planetary Society. He is enough of a space groupie, he says, to enjoy any successful launch--even one that comes years late.

IN THE PLANETARY SOCIETY'S 16-room headquarters, in a turn-of-the-century Greene and Greene mansion, Louis Friedman has the smallest office. ("Size is not power," he says.) He sits at an old oak desk above which hangs a needlepoint of Saturn stitched by his mother. When he's not on the phone, he's likely to be bounding downstairs to consult with his secretaries or Tim Lynch, the society's director of programs and development. He jogs each morning to work off the calories of an occasional beer, but seeing him scurry around, one wonders if the jogging isn't overkill.

For nearly a decade, Friedman has spent most of his waking hours as the pivotal man in an exercise in mass salesmanship: finding ways to persuade Americans--the public, politicians, bureaucrats and space scientists--to rally behind planetary exploration as they did in the 1960s, after the Soviets launched Sputnik. In the past 25 years, he has evolved from space engineer to salesman of dreams in an era of diminished dreaming. "What I want to do," Friedman says, "is make space exploration happen. "

Under Friedman's direction, the Planetary Society is to planetary exploration what Common Cause is to political campaigning or the Sierra Club is to conservation. But in addition to calling for a general reform of the nation's space program, it has channeled most of its energies into promoting a single great notion: that of a joint U.S.-Soviet manned mission to Mars. The group's leaders believe that the Mars mission--with its underpinnings of global peace through technology--is the only aspiration grand enough to drum up the public interest needed to fuel real-life star trekking. And, Friedman hopes, that grass-roots enthusiasm will eventually bubble up to influence the Washington policy-makers and budget writers who can put the civil space program back on its old, optimistic track.

As executive director, Friedman is administrator, policy-maker, publicist and even carnival barker, trying to lure passers-by inside the tent to see the exotica--in this case, the planets in Earth's solar system. Despite his background as a card-carrying scientist, this may be the job he was born to do. "I live, breathe and eat Mars," he says.

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