LET'S DO LAUNCH

NO,YOU DON'T HAVE TO BE A ROCKET SCIENTIST. JUST FLEX YOUR MISSILES.

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 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 proved 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 antitank 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.

The most alarming incident, however, occurred five years ago--before many of today's more powerful motors were even available. That's when Cheryl Tindell of Houston received a phone call from the FBI. She recalls the conversation was short and cryptic; the San Francisco-based agent on the other end of the line said only that the FBI "would like to talk to my husband, Edward, and that President Bush was aware of what was going on."

The reason for the call turned out to be that, at the time, Ed was president of Tripoli. The FBI was looking for information on a new member named Christina Reid, a San Francisco State electrical-engineering student with a history of supporting radical causes. One of them was the Irish Republican Army.

Reid, it would turn out, had joined Tripoli to become certified by the organization. Certification, which requires one successful launch and recovery at a Tripoli-sanctioned event, permits association members to then purchase high-power rocket motors as part of a research organization.

In July 1989, FBI agents arrested Reid, along with three men, and charged them with conspiring to build and sell surface-to-air missiles to the IRA to be used to down British helicopters. (Hearing that some of the model-rocket motors could propel a missile at up to 1,000 miles per hour, one of the would-be terrorists gloated that British pilots "won't have time to blink.") A handmade but functional shoulder launcher was confiscated from the group.

Ed Tindell, who turned over association records on Reid to the FBI, testified at the trial that the powerful rocket motors used by Tripoli members indeed could easily be turned into terrorist weapons. For his efforts, he won a commendation from the FBI. For her efforts, Reid was sentenced to 41 months in prison.

Predictably, the several federal agencies (California is the only state with specific laws restricting the possession of high-power rocket motors) long content to ignore the hobby--or simply unaware of it--recently have become interested in Tripoli and its members' toys.

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