CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) _ While 1,800 journalists had a ringside seat at the NASA press center for Discovery's return to space today, the Air Force made hundreds of others view the launch from a more distant site.

The alternate site offers an unobstructed view down the Banana River of the launchpad six miles away. Five sets of bleachers, several television monitors and loudspeakers were installed in a grassy field along the water, but reporters there do not have access to telephones and computers.

The Air Force cited concerns for safety in case of a rocket accident when it limited to 1,800 the number of reporters during launch at NASA's Complex 39 press site - four miles from the pad. More than 5,000 sought credentials for Discovery.

The decision upset many in the media.

''We do not feel NASA is in the position to tell us how many people we need to cover a story. On principle, we will never buy that,'' Edward H. Kolcum of Aviation Week & Space Technology said Wednesday.

''I don't understand the difference between having 4,000 here and 1,800 here,'' said John Wilford of The New York Times. ''It's just a lousy situation.''

News magazines were restricted to one reporter at the press site, while daily newspapers ranging in size from the very small to The New York Times and The Washington Post were allowed two journalists.

The Air Force said its concerns were raised by studies conducted in the wake of the Jan. 28, 1986, Challenger accident and a Titan 34D explosion three months later. The fear is that the site might be bombarded by falling debris from solid rockets should they malfunction just after launch and have to be blown up by a signal from the ground.

''NASA and the Air Force felt the rules in place for this launch were prudent and appropriate,'' said Richard Truly, shuttle chief.

Jerry Hannifin, a Time magazine correspondent who has been covering space launches from the beginning, has protested to the White House and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

''There are far greater dangers from mosquitoes that might be carrying yellow fever or malaria (at the secondary press site) than from an exploding SRB (solid rocket booster),'' he said.