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5...4...3...2...1...HEADS UPLET'S DO LAUNCH NO, YOU DON'T HAVE TO BE A ROCKET SCIENTIST. JUST FLEX YOUR MISSILES.

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"Keep your eyes open," the announcer says over the loudspeaker. "We've lost it."

In the beginning, Tripoli president Chuck Rogers explains, there was the National Association of Rocketry. Rogers, a white-haired aerospace engineer from Louisiana who works for the Air Force's Office of Research Projects, is lounging under an open tent. Next to him sits Bruce Kelly, who publishes High Power Rocketry out of Salt Lake City. He is wearing a "Let's Do Launch" T-shirt.

NAR (originally called the Model Missile Association) was founded in Denver in 1957 by G. Harry Stine, considered the father of model rocketry. NAR, which has relocated to Wisconsin, has steadfastly maintained its mission of promoting the hobby of building small rockets out of paper, balsa and plastic, powered by smallish, mass-produced motors. Beginning in the 1970s, though, a group of more serious rocket guys began gathering in a dry lake bed in California to shoot off models of their own design.

Many early models were powered by a combustible combination of zinc and sulfur. Many blew up. Frank Kosdon, an MIT-trained physicist who is trying to start a big-motor business out of his home in California, recalls experimenting not so successfully with various explosive powder combinations. "Actually," he recalls, "it was more like inventing pipe bombs than setting off rockets."

In 1981 a group of enthusiasts calling themselves the Tripoli Federation (in honor of a collection of Libyan coins they sold for start-up cash) decided to gather in Medina, Ohio, in the Woodstock of high-power rocketry. But when they invited NAR members to join them, the older organization declined and urged its members to boycott, warning that the Tripoli meet would be rife with "large dangerous rocket ships." Tripoli, of course, promptly named the event LDRS I.

The organization has considered a name change only once. According to lore, that was when representatives of the association sought support from Jake Garn, the former conservative senator from Utah and an early space fan. But when Garn's secretary heard the caller was from Tripoli, she informed them that the senator didn't deal with Libyans, who, she explained, were terrorists. Still, when Rogers suggested changing Tripoli's name several years ago, the membership soundly thrashed the idea.

Over the past five years Tripoli's popularity has exploded, from about 500 members nationwide to nearly 1,800. High Power Rocketry boasts a circulation of 23,000. According to Rogers, two-thirds of the organization's membership attended college; the average Tripolian is 35 years old.

Many of the group's members are content to fly grown-up versions of the small models that kids have enjoyed for years. They patronize a handful of new companies with names like Dynacom ("When You're Serious About Rockets"), Dangerous Dave's and Public Missiles Ltd., which make kits for rockets up to ten feet tall.

Other companies, such as AeroTech, of Nevada, and Vulcan Manufacturing, in Colorado Springs, construct powerful motors for large-scale missiles. (In a clear sign of a growing industry, AeroTech last year sued Estes Industries, based in Penrose, in U.S. District Court in Denver. At issue was AeroTech's development of a reloadable rocket motor, similar to a refillable rifle cartridge. In 1992 a mysterious video began making its way around high-power launches; in it, AeroTech's reloadables are graphically depicted blowing up in violent fireballs. In the lawsuit, the company fingers Estes--which stands to lose sales of its one-shot motors--as the culprit.)

Increasingly, such models have proven unsatisfying for many men (high-power rockettes are rare), who are left flaccid by the off-the-shelf models. The result has been a surge in the use of hand-built rockets that are based on recently declassified U.S. Army and NASA specs and are propelled by incredibly powerful motors.

Motors are graded by letters. The thrust doubles as you move through the alphabet; for example, a D motor is twice as powerful as a C. The largest motor Estes Industries manufactures for its popular kids' models is an E.

These days, however, it is not uncommon to see J, K, L and even M motors pushing garage-built rockets several miles into the sky. It is difficult to conceive of their strength. Consider, says Balliro, that a standard U.S. Army-issue shoulder-launched missile carries the equivalent of a J motor; a K motor is 20 percent larger than an Apache anti-tank missile.

At last year's LDRS meet, also held in Argonia, Frank Kosdon detonated an O motor he built in his Ventura, California, home. It stood six feet high, cost $1,500 and, with its 2,000 pounds of thrust, could have dragged a Volkswagen into the air. Instead, it propelled Kosdon's aluminum rocket to more than 35,000 feet at nearly twice the speed of sound.

Not surprisingly, such devices have caught the eye of people who are not necessarily interested in rocket science. Police across the country say (and honest rocketeers concede) that smaller motors are a favorite among arsonists looking for a reliable, cheap, hot burn. When producers for the NBC newsmagazine Dateline were scouting for a way to set a GMC truck afire to dramatize the model's alleged dangers during a crash, they turned to an Estes solid model-rocket motor.

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Eric Dexheimer
Contact: Eric Dexheimer