If one had to choose between Jessica Tuchman Mathews and Budget Director Richard Darman, Mr. Darman would win hands down. Dr. Mathews' emotional argument {"The Mars Extravaganza," op-ed, Oct. 5} just doesn't make sense in terms of today's problems, and she doesn't have her facts right.

First, the cost of a Mars program is roughly estimated at $500 billion over 30 years, whereas Congress and the White House want to reduce the federal deficit by $500 billion over the next five years. During the initial five-year period from 1991 to 1995, NASA plans to spend only about $5 billion to start to develop the needed technology and do the initial planning for the eventual missions to Mars. If these funds were eliminated, we would only reduce the federal deficit by 1 percent.

NASA's budget is only about 1 percent of the federal budget, and to return to the moon and then send the first Americans to Mars would only increase NASA's budget to about 2 percent of the federal budget by the year 2000. Thus, whether we go to Mars or not, or for that matter, whether we have a civil space program or not, is not likely to make much of a difference when it comes to reducing the federal deficit, because NASA's budget is too small to make much of a dent in it. What clearly has to be brought under control is the largest part of the federal budget, almost half, which goes to social welfare programs. They might be nice to have, but most of them aren't going to make us more competitive in the world marketplace.

Richard Darman is correct in perceiving the Mars program as an investment in our future economic well-being. With the Cold War ending, and our former enemies, Germany and Japan, now back on their feet, we will face not a military threat in the years ahead but an economic threat from Europe and Japan. For America to remain competitive in the next few decades, it will have to invest in science and technology, and part of this investment could be a well thought out Mars program that would increase our scientific knowledge and advance our technological capability. In the past, the Department of Defense made most of this investment for the federal government, but with the DOD budget likely to be cut substantially during the next decade, the investment will have to be made by the government in various civil areas, such as the space program.

Dr. Mathews ends her article with an emotional plea to save 40,000 children who die each day from malnutrition and disease, and another billion living in absolute poverty. Most, if not all, of these people live outside the United States and are not our direct concern. Furthermore, we can't put the cart before the horse. In order for the United States to be in a position to help them, we first have to maintain our own standard of living. To do this, we must remain competitive in the world marketplace.


The writer is former director of planning for the National Commission on Space.