While I usually enjoy Tom Toles's work, his Feb. 4 cartoon ridiculing human spaceflight was beyond the pale.

Everyone is free to question the efficiency and financial cost of the space program; the aerospace industry harbors some of the program's most vocal critics. One may even question the scientific or technological benefits of spaceflight. But to dismiss the program out of hand reveals as blind a set of preconceptions as Toles scorns NASA for having.

It is unconscionable for critics of the cost or scientific value of human space exploration to make the Columbia tragedy part of such arguments. Columbia's crew knew the "value of lives lost" and they pledged that value gladly for the chance to go beyond the thin envelope surrounding our planet. It was their choice and the shared dream of many of us. Toles's sanctimonious lampoon was a slur to that choice and that dream.

-- Arthur Rabeau

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Your paper referred to the Columbia astronauts' "service in a pure science mission and their willingness to put their own lives at risk to advance space exploration" ["The Morning After," editorial, Feb. 4]. But wait -- what "space exploration"? This was the 107th flight of a NASA space shuttle. After 40 years of manned spaceflight, there is no "exploration" in yet another low-Earth-orbit mission. As for the science, every experiment on board, excepting only those on the astronauts' own bodies, could have been done on unmanned space platforms, at a quarter of the cost. There is no need to put lives at risk to see how flames burn or how granular materials compress or how cells grow in zero gravity.

We are no closer to the other planets, much less the stars, than we were in 1969, when the first lunar landing took place.

-- Jack McKay