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Scanning the Skies for Signs of Life: So Far, Search Reports 'Just Static' : Planetary Society: Space scientists frustrated with the government's 'lack of vision' are doing their own looking for other worlds.

March 18, 1990|EDMUND NEWTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When you want to know how things are going in the race to contact other civilizations in distant solar systems, you go to a two-story wooden house on a back street in Pasadena.

This is the headquarters of the Planetary Society, a 10-year-old grass-roots group and the world's most tireless promoter of the "search for extraterrestrial intelligence" (SETI). Thanks to the 120,000-member organization, the search is moving into high gear these days.

A Planetary Society-sponsored project in Massachusetts has been scanning the sky with a radiotelescope for seven years, listening simultaneously to 8 million radio frequencies for signals that might jump unnaturally out of the cosmic roar. (So far, just static.)

Now the organization is initiating a similar project in Argentina, scheduled to get started on Columbus Day of this year.

Moving the search to the Southern Hemisphere brings the crowded "fat part" of the galaxy into range, more than doubling the number of possible targets, says Thomas McDonough, coordinator of SETI (pronounced settee ) projects for the society.

"If you think of the galaxy as a big fried egg, the yolk is the galactic center," he explains. "It can't be seen very well from the Northern Hemisphere."

Is there intelligent life out there somewhere? Members of the organization eagerly await the evidence. When the signal comes, says McDonough, it will be "the greatest long-distance call in history."

Esoteric pursuits such as SETI, combining the latest technology with the vision of a science fiction fantasist, are the Planetary Society's reason for being, administrators say. Space scientists Carl Sagan, Bruce Murray and Louis Friedman formed the group in late 1979, after a decade of NASA budget cuts and what they perceived as a lack of vision in the government's space program.

The society has been pressing for, among other things, a joint United States-Soviet manned mission to Mars and more unmanned flyby planetary explorations like the Voyager mission.

"This is a no-nonsense office," says Friedman, the society's executive director, leaning back and resting his sneakered feet on an empty chair. "There's not a lot of protocol."

In other words, if the government shilly-shallies, the Planetary Society is ready to do it itself. That has meant, for example, starting its own SETI program (partially funded by movie director Steven Spielberg) and becoming the first private group to join the Soviet Union in a space experiment. The society has agreed to participate with the Russians in an unmanned exploration of Mars in 1994, spending $450,000 to develop a snake-like specimen-gatherer that will dangle from an experimental balloon.

"We couldn't wait around for NASA to get their act together," Friedman says.

Friedman and his staff, an informal bunch who love to party, operate at a hectic pace in an ambience of controlled clutter. In the hallways of the society's building, you're liable to trip over a three-dimensional model of the rocky Martian canyon Valles Marinaris, used by Sagan in his PBS series, "The Cosmos," or an artist's rendering of a receiver picking up Earth signals in a distant galaxy.

The building is a turn-of-the-century Greene & Greene gem, complete with cobblestone columns, leaded glass, a carved fireplace and, in the finance office, a secret compartment behind the paneling. "It might have been used to store the silverware, or maybe booze was kept there during Prohibition," says Susan Lendroth, communications manager.

But the furniture is of the thrift store variety. "It's potluck," says Lendroth, looking at a conference table surrounded by mismatched chairs. "You try to avoid the chair that's too low or the one with the broken back. We have better things to do with our money than to buy sets of uniform chairs."

"It's not a slick-page, glossy organization," concedes co-founder Bruce Murray, a Caltech professor and former head of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Director of Development Tim Lynch says the dues-paying membership, about 100,000 in the United States, breaks down into roughly equal numbers of "space and astronomy buffs," people who are generally interested in science, and science fiction fans. "Probably no more than 10% of the members are Ph.Ds or working scientists," he says.

Because of the inherent mysteriousness of the society's field of study, it attracts more than its share of flaky callers and correspondence, staff members say.

Charlene Anderson, editor of the society's magazine, the Planetary Report, says she gets frequent letters from people who claim to have disproved relativity or who know where "the aliens" are.

Some staff members jokingly joined the recent debate about a "face" on a hill that appeared in aerial photographs of Mars during the Viking mission. One supermarket tabloid solemnly reported that the image, apparently the result of erosion, was a representation of Pee Wee Herman.

"I think it looks more like Elvis," Lynch says.

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