You saw the news stories last week: NASA has created a national competition among school children to name its new space shuttle the one to replace Challenger, which exploded in flight two years ago.

The "Orbiter-Naming Competition" is well-conceived, considering that NASA's only label for the replacement is its serial number, OV-105.Entry forms and rules will be available next month, with entries due Dec. 31. A class, grade or entire school may submit a name, with state and territory winners decided next April. Final winners in the two divisions kindergarten through sixth grade and seventh through twelfth, and NASA's name selection will be announced in May 1989.

Perhaps the naming contest is a bit premature, considering the replacement orbiter is under construction in a Rockwell International assembly plant in California. Completion is three years away, with a maiden flight expected in 1992. And that could be later, given the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's lack of a track record for shuttle flights since the Challenger disaster.

And in four years, students now in high school will have graduated, and kindergarten children will be in the fourth grade.

Oh, there are a few conditions to the naming contest. First, the name "Challenger" has been "retired" in honor of the seven crew members killed. And another NASA restriction is that the name suggestions continue the tradition of naming shuttles after exploratory or research sea vessels.

Does that mean that in the minds of hundreds of thousands of the American school kids that the next shuttle should be the Kon-Tiki? Calypso? Or perhaps the Nina, the Pinta or the Santa Maria? According to a recent NASA statement, "The name chosen should not only identify an American spacecraft but also should capture the spirit of American's mission in space."

I'm not a child any more, but I want to offer my suggestion:

Phoenix. And let me explain.

Obviously the first thing that comes to mind is Arizona's capital city, a progressive, moving metropolis Evan Mecham notwithstanding.

Besides, the name has its place in space. The Phoenix constellation comprises some 68 stars visible to the naked eye. And Phoenix is the name of a 13-foot-long American air-to-air missile.

And, if we're forced to meet that exploratory or research sea vessel condition, perhaps we can convince NASA to recall that Phoenix was the name of a steamship in 1809. John Stevens' 100-foot steam-powered boat aided in the development of the steamships, which had been introduced only two years earlier by American inventor Robert Fulton.

But those reasons pale in comparison to the place the phoenix has in mythology a majestic bird found predominantly in Egyptian mythology, with similar references found in Islamic and Chinese legends.

According to myths, the phoenix was as large as an eagle, with a gold and scarlet plumage and a melodious cry. Only one phoenix lived at a time and had a life span of at least 500 years.

Before dying, a phoenix was said to make and then rest on a nest of aromatic boughs, with the nest and bird then consumed in flames. Out of the ashes arose the successor phoenix.

Because of the myths, the phoenix has been considered a symbol of immortality and been used as an allegory of resurrection and life after death. No wonder that authors, wordsmiths and lyricists from William Shakespeare to Dan Fogelberg have employed the phoenix as a subject of their writings.

Phoenix. Majestic bird. Consumed by fire. A successor arising out of the ashes. Immortality. Life after death. It all sounds like just the name and image that the post-Challenger NASA needs.