James W. McCulla {letters, Jan. 4}, writing to justify NASA's manned space program in response to Jessica Mathews' comments {op-ed, Dec. 23}, articulates a set of goals for the U.S. space program and particularly its manned component that can hardly be taken seriously.

Of the four goals, three are not unique to the space program, manned or unmanned. The manned program is responsible for no more than a small fraction of the progress that has been made in these areas since the beginning of World War II, and there is no clear priority for pursuing such goals by a costly U.S. manned space program.

The fourth, "to expand the human race beyond the home planet" is dumbfounding, "Edward Hillary and Mount Everest" notwithstanding. If Mr. McCulla were to proceed around the Earth asking individuals whether this is a sensible high priority human goal, his question would be taken as a joke.

In the perspective of millions of years of human life and thousands of years of what might be called "advanced civilization," it is beyond comprehension why it should be necessary in the year 1991 or the decade that follows for this goal to preempt or even significantly impair our ability to tackle the burdens of Earthbound disease, hunger and poverty, and the impoverishment of the Earth's resources.

Dr. Mathews is correct that with the military justification for the space program gone, it is time to stringently reduce it across the board or, more sensibly, to eliminate the manned aspect of the program.

ELLIOT CHARNEY Bethesda

The writer is a scientist emeritus at the National Institutes of Health and a former consultant to the NASE Committee on the Mars Fly-By Mission.