In the Jan. 14 Letters to the Editor, Elliot Charney calls James W. McCulla's justification for a manned space program -- "to expand the human race beyond the home planet" -- a joke.

A war over energy has just begun. Such a war will, to use Mr. Charney's words, "significantly impair our ability to tackle the burdens of Earth-bound disease, hunger and poverty and the impoverishment of the Earth's resources."

In the Earth's long history, humans are the only creatures clever enough to have figured out how to expand our biological range beyond the Earth's finite bounds. Space offers unlimited room to grow, unlimited access to materials and unlimited supplies of energy. (The sun radiates enough energy each second to supply humanity's present needs for a million years, yet people will kill for 20 years' worth of oil.) That a "scientist emeritus" would call our opportunity to expand our biological range "dumbfounding" and "a joke" discredits his credentials.

In the ideal, a space program would not only be manned, it would also be driven by the force and thrill of unambiguous international competition. And it would be paid for with military money -- the unprecedented benefit to humanity being a constructive rather than destructive product of frank international competition.

ROBERT PAGE Kensington