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Unfortunately, no one thought to alert the fire department.

If the Kansas plains ever had a use for something other than growing wheat and being a nice place to unwind after Oz, high-power rocketry probably is it. Outside Argonia, population 650, the landscape spreads and stretches until nothing but a straight line separates the quilted fields and the sky. Never mind model rockets--the space shuttle could land here unnoticed.

Which, points out my guide, Pat Michl, is the whole idea. Michl used to maintain nuclear missiles at Lowry Air Force Base. He recently joined the Colorado division of the Tripoli Rocketry Association. "Sometimes," he explains, "it's difficult to find people who'll let you do this sort of thing."

Tripoli has discovered, largely through trial and error, that western states generally make for better launch sites. Michl says a major event in Illinois was moved recently because the old site was directly between a federal penitentiary and an interstate highway. At another eastern site, in Battle Park, Virginia, nearby homeowners have begun confiscating rockets that plummet or drift into their yards.

During an eleven-hour drive from Denver, Michl has patiently explained some of the ground rules for Tripoli launches. For instance, this year, as with last, members are being strongly encouraged not to bring their rocket motors into their hotel rooms. If they can't sleep without them, then they are urged not to bring in their ignitors. This is a nod to the phenomenon of random static electricity, which could set off a chain reaction.

Other unofficial rules: When a rocket crashes, it is entirely acceptable to sift through the debris out of professional curiosity. But it is bad form to point and laugh--partially a recognition that everyone at one time or another will destroy a rocket of his own.

More important, however, is that the group is trying to get away from what recent High Power Rocketry editorials termed an "attitude problem." Which is that, while it is viscerally understood how remarkably cool it is to detonate a highly explosive propellant in a plume of smoke and a loud, rumbling WHOOSH, watching a parachute deploy with a small "pop" is considered a bit of a letdown.

(One California company still produces a series of hot-selling home videos called Men and Their Rockets, which is to rocketry what The NFL's Greatest Hits is to football. "This is THE crash and burn video," reads one advertisement. "From the start you're immersed in disaster. Awesome! Watch Bill Morrow crash his beautiful 12-foot-tall rocket! Guess what happens to Daun Barber's lovely 11-foot-tall Excalibur? He destroys it!")

As a result, the concept of a peaceful landing has taken a distant second in the hearts and minds of rocket hobbyists to violently satisfying liftoffs. With the recent Let's Do Rockets Safely! campaign, Tripoli is trying to stress the importance of recovering one's rockets rather than planting them. (A hot debate still rages over a record-setting 35,000-foot-high flight last year. The rocket was never recovered, and there is muttering that its owner never even bothered to include a parachute.)

Other important preparatory information provided by Michl: A "land shark" is a rocket that doesn't quite lift off but still has considerable thrust behind it and skitters along the ground like a vicious, jet-propelled dachshund. A "cato" is short for "catastrophe," which occurs when a motor explodes rather than ignites. This is exciting to see, pyrotechnics-wise. But experience shows that it is bad for a rocket's structural integrity, which generally disintegrates.

The LDRS launch site is in a field owned by a local wheat farmer named Rick Nafzinger, a tall, soft-spoken man with basset-hound eyes and a purple seed-company cap. He agreed to hold the launch on his 160-acre field after attending a local rocketry gathering and overhearing several members lament that if only they had a bigger field, they could get a less restrictive FAA waiver and shoot their rockets higher.

"My neighbors were a little skeptical at first," recalls Nafzinger, who has lived in Argonia all his life. "They couldn't believe that people would come all the way from California just to shoot off rockets." The locals were quickly won over, particularly after Lamothe's 25-foot rocket climbed into the air on a giant plume of smoke during the final day of last year's meet. Sighs Naf-zinger, "It was the most beautiful sight."

Californians are hardly the only ones to-ting rockets to this year's launch. By 8 a.m. cars from Florida, Georgia, Washington, New York, New Jersey, Wyoming and Washington already are parked along a narrow strip of grass dividing two fields.

Near the dirt road is a giant blue-and-white tent. Inside, the local Kiwanis Club has set up a booth to sell iced tea and cold soda. They are soon joined by the Argonia High School's After Prom committee, which is raising money by hawking Pizza Hut slices at an obscene markup.

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Eric Dexheimer
Contact: Eric Dexheimer