Most of us, it's safe to say, will never see our names on the waiting list for the space shuttle.

But when you're feeling earthbound and at the end of your rope, there's an easier (and cheaper) way to get a line on the heavens and make your mark on the sky -- fly a kite. Join the sky-painters and speckle the biggest canvas of all with bright delights.

Plain and grand, kites have inspired centuries of poets and politicians, warriors and scientists, kids and kids-at-heart. And now, with spring officially sprung, they call again. The rites of spring begin with the kites of spring. 25 CENTURIES OF RISING TO THE OCCASION

A LITTLE RESPECT, please. The kite, after all, is the airplane's oldest ancestor.

Airplanes first flew 82 years ago. Hot-air balloons celebrated their 300th anniversary in 1983. But they're just kids next to the venerable kite.

Kite historians think the first kite went up over China more than 25 centuries ago. Theories about how the bright idea was hatched range from the sight of sails on a fishing boat to a farmer's hat being blown away by a breeze to a leaf fluttering in a spider's web, catching the wind.

Though we may think of them primarily as a child's toy, kites have distinguished themselves through the ages: KITE HEIGHTS

* Natives of the East Indies to this day go fishing with kites of woven leaves -- the kite's tail dangles over the water, with sticky spiderweb wadded at the bottom. The fish mistake the tail for food, get their gills caught in the sticky web, and the fisherman scoops them from the water.

* Using large baskets carried by enormous kites, ancient Japanese construction workers lifted tiles and bricks to workmen building towers.

* Kites are treated with special reverence in Japan, where on the fifth day of the fifth month, the Boys' Festival is celebrated. Families who have been blessed with a male child in the previous year celebrate by flying huge kites, and all households with male children fly colorful windsocks shaped like fish on poles in front of their homes.

* To ensure a good harvest, the Chinese fly fertility kites over the rice paddies, with unthreshed rice attached to the wing tips and tail. The wind loosens the rice grains from the sheaves, scattering them over the fields in a symbolic fertilization rite.

* Farmers in Vietnam fly bird-shaped kites over the fields to scare smaller birds from the rice crops.

* The U.S. Weather Bureau has used ki since the 1890s to carry instruments to high altitudes.

* A 19th-century Frenchman named Jobert invented a lifesaving kite that could carry a lifeline from a crippled ship to the shore.

* When radio inventor Guglielmo Marconi made his first successful transatlantic wireless reception tests in 1901, the receiving aerial was raised 400 feet by a kite.

* Wilbur and Orville Wright patterned their first successful airplane on an experimental kite they built in 1899.

* And the most popular hang-glider design evolved from a kite made by aeronautical engineer Francis Rogallo of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. BATTLE GEAR

Man has an unfailing knack for turning his beneficial inventions into instruments of war, and kites have been put to military use for centuries.

In his excellent and informative book "Kites" (Penguin), British writer David Pelham tells how, around 200 B.C., Korean general Gim Yu-Sin was ordered to quell an uprising. While he was doing this, a shooting star fell, a terrible omen that upset both rebels and the general's own forces. To restore the status quo, the creative general used a large kite to raise a fireball into the night sky. Everyone accepted it as the shooting star returning to the heavens, all was once more right with the world, and the struggle could continue.

Kites were used to lift military observers in World War I, but were soon made obsolete by the airplane. During WWII, huge box kites were flown above U.S. ships to damage the wings and propellers of enemy planes. And maneuverable kites have been used for naval gunnery practice. FAMOUS FLYERS

Alexander Graham Bell: He put a whole factory to work to make a colossal manned tetrahedral kite called the Cygnet.

Alexander Wilson and Thomas Melvill: These pre-Franklin Scottish experimenters were interested in temperature, so they sent up trains of kites with thermometers attached and found out that it's colder up there than it is down here.

Sir George Cayley: "The father of aerial navigation," he used a kite to find the relationship between the center of pressure and the center of gravity.

You can see models and diagrams of their kites and flight experiments at the National Air and Space Museum. TOP OF THE LINE

Kiting records, according to the Guinness Book of World Records:

The Biggest: Gerard van der Loo's 507-pound nylon kite, measuring 53.4 x 105 x 116 feet. It was launched in August 1981 by a team of 70 at Scheveniingen, The Netherlands, and flew above 131 feet for 37 minutes.

The Most: Kazuhiko Asaba holds the title for most kites flown on a single line -- 4,128. He launched them (somehow) in Kamakura, Japan, in September 1978.

The Highest: There's a claim for 37,908 feet by Steven W. Flack in September 1978, but the kite was not recovered. The accepted record is 31,955 feet by a chain of eight kites over Lindenberg, East Germany, in August 1919.

The Longest Flying: The Edmonds Community College team of Long Beach, Washington, kept a parafoil up for 180 hours, 17 minutes in August 1982.