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THIS ONE is too bad and too obvious to pass up.
A Texas firm, Space Travel Services, is holding a sweepstakes. First prize is a week on the Soviet space station Mir. Second prize is, all together now . . . no, wait. We all have too much self-respect to finish that line.

The point is, anybody who is interested in a ride on a Russian spacecraft, and a glorious seven-day float on the only rest stop between Moscow and Uranus, can enter the sweepstakes for a $2.99 telephone call to (900) 258-2MIR. Skinflints can get in for the price of a postage stamp and a 3-by-5-inch scrap of paper mailed to P.O. Box 5800249, Houston, Texas 77258-0249.

Is this for real, you ask? Admittedly there are a few loose ends, but let's assume the deal is legitimate.

The way the contest works is this:

The deadline is Dec. 1, 1991. The winner will be picked in a random drawing that month. The ride will be taken on a flight in late 1992 or early 1993.

Why the delay? You don't just toss a drip-dry shirt and skivvies into an overnight bag and probe the universe. The lucky winner will receive six months of training, including instruction in a few basic Russian space language necessities.

Such as, "You call this lunch?" and "Are we there yet?"

In addition to the ride and vacation on Mir, first prize includes $500,000 in cash. This is one of the loose ends. Are they talking spending money? Does it have to be used up before the return to Earth? If so, what are the hours for the souvenir shop?

Now, get this. There is an alternate first prize. If you don't want to blast off and spend all that time being airsick and saying "Excuse me" in a difficult language, you can skip the ride and take a $1.5 million prize.

This option creates one really big and one medium-size loose end. With that kind of deal, do the sponsors really believe anybody will go for the travel package? And what do they mean by a $1.5 million prize? Are they talking rubles? Stock in the Communist Party? A night on the town with Joe Stalin's daughter?

Again, assuming everybody is serious, what's the point of this raffle?

A spokesman for Space Travel Services says the company's long-term strategy is to become big in the business of arranging rocket rides for anybody who feels the urge to spend $12 million to go what, in essence, is nowhere.

The price may come down when traffic picks up, but $12 million is what it cost the Japanese company that recently sent a reporter to Mir. The sweepstakes ride, according to travel agency president David Mayer, will be even more expensive.

To cover the cost, the company will receive a big hunk of the receipts from the $2.99 phone calls and sell advertising on the spacecraft.

Do what? Sell advertising. Not billboards that plug booze or banners that promote garlic crab joints. Product endorsements. You know, for wearing apparel, dirt bikes, buttermilk biscuits that weigh two pounds each, even in space. One race car driver can sew $5 million worth of plugs on one asbestos sleeve.

I called the rocket raffle hot line to find out more details. A fast-talking recorded female voice rattled off a quick history of Soviet space exploration, then provided one bit of comforting news. The Mir space station is not just a claustrophobic nest of dials, controls and computer keyboards. It has a 40-ton clubhouse with room for dominoes, poker and mah-jongg.

At the end of her spiel she invites the caller to stay on the line and enter the contest. Oh, there is one bit of bad news. Residents of New York, Rhode Island and Florida are ineligible.

So move to California. Win or lose, you're still surrounded by space cadets.

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