Supporters of the nonmilitary space program, expressing frustration at lack of political attention to their concerns in this election year, are making increasing use of classic "interest-group" techniques to try to mobilize grass-roots passions.
Starting Friday with events in four cities, including Washington, a coalition of engineers, teachers, scientists, aerospace-industry officials and other citizens and institutions plan to launch "Spacewatch '88," issuing what they say is the first "voters' guide" on space issues.
Speakers at the events are expected to call on presidential candidates to give higher priority to space issues and science education.
Despite concern about safety since the Challenger shuttle explosion that killed the crew of seven Jan. 28, 1986, nationwide polls indicate continuing support for space activities, according to Spacecause, a nonprofit lobbying group spearheading the new effort.
The new group cited:
A CBS News-New York Times poll last month in which 66 percent of respondents said the shuttle program is worth continuing, while 28 percent said it is not worth the cost and risk.
However, 68 percent said they believe that the program will be delayed further by problems and, perhaps because of such doubts, the pollsters said, 43 percent think that too much is being spent on space.
A USA Today poll last month in which 45 percent rated the nation's efforts to recover after Challenger "just about right," 39 percent felt that movement was "too slow" and 11 percent too fast.
In that poll, 59 percent indicated that they favor developing technology that could return astronauts to the moon by the year 2000 and begin Mars flights early in the 21st century, and 32 percent were opposed.
An ABC News-Washington Post poll a year ago in which, when given a list of federal programs and asked if spending should be increased, cut or kept the same, 76 percent wanted an increase or the same amount and 23 percent sought cuts.
Such broad support is not easily translated into political clout, however, when spending for space is pitted against spending for housing, environmental protection and other programs.
"The space program is not easy to understand," said Gueta Mezzetti, political counsel for Spacecause. "People tend to focus on launches and astronauts, but it's much more complicated.
"We want them to focus on the benefits right here on Earth . . . . the impact on the local and national economy," scientific and technical spinoffs and other aspects, Mezzetti said.
With a view toward the Super Tuesday presidential primaries March 8, the coalition cites fiscal 1987 economic benefits to five southern states and the District of Columbia from space-program contracts, ranging from a high of $773.7 million in Maryland to a low of $324.7 million in Virginia. The District figure is $460.4 million.
The voters' guide, profiling candidates' positions or lack thereof on space, is to be released at the National Press Club here and in Huntsville, Ala.; Cocoa Beach, Fla., and Houston.
Participants are to include author Arthur C. Clarke by telephone from Sri Lanka, former astronaut Joseph Allen and Charles D. Walker, the first "industry astronaut," who has flown on the shuttle three times and is chairman of Spacecause.
Vice President Bush and Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.) are the only candidates who have made campaign speeches on space issues.
Joining Spacecause in the coalition are 12 space industry and grass-roots organizations, including Teachers in Space, the Aerospace Industries Association and the American Electronics Association.