AND WHAT IF Skylab hits no one and nothing, after all, and drops into the sea unceremoniously, like Icarus, missing even the ever-jeopardized whales? Would there not be the faintest sense of disappointment? All those spic-and-span emergency-preparedness centers; those eager Justice Department lawyers ready to fly anywhere to settle lawsuits; the prospective law-suiters themselves, rehearsing cries of Sky-lash"; the hawkers of false relics; the funny, clever T-shirt artists; the New York phone company that set up Dial-a-skylab -- all these -- might they not feel a huge, silent deflation of spirit as the major event of the summer, perhaps of their lives, comes to a quiet, watery end?

And will we have learned nothing from this experience -- not NASA, of course, with its mad technologies -- but we, the crouching, dodging, praying masses? Right now the little 771/2-ton devil is supposed to fall to pieces over the South Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Will a great sigh of relief rise like yeast over the Patomac if this comes to pass or will we see out Schadenfreude for the miserable thing it is, and recognise that the brave peoples on the other side of the world have suffered that we may live? What if it lands on New York? Will we go: Nyah, nyah?

Repent, Washingtonians, before the fall. Skylab may be a test of human virture, a deus ex machina with a beanie, sent here not be the incompetence of mere men, but rather by cosmic forces who would wish to determine how much we citizens of the capital would be willing to assume the burdens of the world, along with the power. There is still time. At the moment it is possible that, if skylab arrivess one orbit later than predicted, it could hit us between 1:15 and 1:20 today -- almost exactly in the middle of our lunch hour. Should we not then lay aside our Greek salads, and rush out to greet it? Should we not show the rest of the country that we accept responsibility for this federal disaster, and take to the streets? Are you crazy?