The line is forming already at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration: journalists, futurists, even folk singer John Denver, have all applied for any available seats on future flights of the Space Shuttles Columbia, Challenger, Discovery and Atlantis.

So, while the Columbia is taking off on its fourth voyage next week, an eight-member task force, including scientists, businessmen, a pollster, an historian, astronaut Richard H. Truly and novelist James Michener will be meeting at the Kennedy Space Center to consider whether to fill empty shuttle seats with civilians.

According to NASA spokesman Bill O'Donnell, the shuttles have seven seats, and at least four of them will always be occupied by astronauts. But when the shuttle is not crowded with scientific experiments or classified Defense Department paraphernalia, there may be an open seat or two: perhaps six to eight extra seats a year after 1984 or 1985. The task force also is considering what sort of people ought to hitch a ride with the shuttle astronauts and how they should be selected. A NASA doctor has suggested that potential passengers should have 99 hours of training over a two-month period to prepare them for everything from weightlessness to eating in outer space to the technical details of how the shuttle operates.

But several people, Michener among them, are arguing that the most important qualification is the ability to evoke the experience of space flight for the earthbound masses. "Michener said that Vasco Da Gama made the exploration around the Cape of Good Hope and had the foresight to take a poet along," O'Donnell said.