For Mutual Broadcasting Co. reporter James J. Snyder, known to his listeners as Jim Slade, yesterday was a "horrible afternoon."

A veteran who has covered the National Aeronautics and Space Administration for almost 26 years, Slade had been told that the first eight of 40 finalists for the journalist-in-space program would be announced at 3 p.m. When the call came, it was 4:50 p.m. -- and Slade was told that he was still in the running. But he had to keep quiet about the news for the next 10 minutes.

Says Slade, "I said, 'With that kind of good news, I can hold my breath.' "

The first eight were chosen from the 20 semifinalists in the southeast region; all were interviewed last weekend in Chapel Hill, N.C. Also selected are two ABC reporters from Washington, Barry Serafin and James T. Wooten; two from United Press International, radio reporter Robert A. Navias of Coral Gables, Fla., and science editor Alexander H. Rossiter of Columbia, Md.; Washington Post reporter Kathy Sawyer; NBC News correspondent Jay Barbree of Cocoa Beach, Fla.; and Marcia Bartusiak, a free-lance science writer from Norfolk.

An additional 16 finalists from the northeast and south central regions are expected to be announced next week, and the final 16 from the north central and western regions should be known by May 14, according to Jack Bass, who is running the program for the Association of Schools of Journalism and Mass Communication.

There is still no timetable for an actual launch, and the timetable for the next round -- which will narrow the field to five -- has not been announced. After that, the winner and backup candidates will be chosen by NASA.

From 1,700 applicants, the first 100 were chosen from written applications. The 40 semifinalists were picked after a videotaped interview and an appearance before the panel of judges.