Dial-a-shuttle - and hear some outer space chitchat

In just a minute and 35 seconds, the space shuttle Challenger will be within range of the Botswana tracking station, and then maybe I'll hear the astronauts talking over my telephone.

What will Sally Ride say, flying 150 miles over Africa? Her voice will be relayed to Houston and then transmitted over the wires to me.

Who could hang up on that?

I was one of nearly a half million people who had called ''dial-a-shuttle'' at 900-410-6272 Tuesday morning for the National Space Institute's round-the-clock, orbit-by-orbit report of Challenger's second flight.

It costs 50 cents for the first three minutes and 35 cents for each additional minute, but it seemed a small price to pay to hear talk from outer space.

Maybe I would be fortunate enough to hear something amusing, such as all five astronauts singing after they were awakened.

But long stretches of conversation between the astronauts and mission control are rare. As the National Space Institute tells callers, the astronauts are only in radio communication with the Johnson Space Center in Houston during 20 percent of their flight.

But I wasn't going to hang up. The shuttle was over South Africa while Sally Ride and John Fabian were doing experiments in near-zero gravity.

There it was, faint and a little garbled. But I could hear the voice from space.

What's that? Something about raising the air pressure in the cabin? Now it's pilot Bob Crippen saying ''goodbye'' until the shuttle gets within range of the Indian Ocean tracking station.

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