LET'S DO LAUNCH

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

By 7:20 the rocket still rests on the launch pad while Dennis does some final fussing. Although it is getting late and Tripoli is sponsoring a banquet tonight in Wichita, no one moves. "I was supposed to be at a wedding at 7," says one of the farmers who has helped assemble the project. "But I'm not about to leave now."

Twenty minutes later, after two false launches, Dennis pushes a red button on his homemade launch console about 200 yards away. After a five-second delay, a giant tongue of flame bursts out of the bottom of the rocket. It clears the launch rail and rises almost in slow motion.

At about 200 feet up, it turns slowly to the right. Tips. A lick of fire appears on the side of the fuselage. A fin blows off. The rocket moves slowly horizontal. The nose cone pops off and begins to float to earth under a parachute.

Meanwhile, the 20-foot-long tube has slammed into a small patch of grass between the field and the road, about 30 feet from the launch site, where a small but white-hot brush fire starts. The aluminum motors continue to spit hot flame; after a while, they split open and begin to melt.

Up at the spectator area, there is complete silence. After a long minute, a chubby teenager gets up the nerve to approach Dennis Lamothe. In what appears to be heading toward a moving scene out of a bad baseball movie, he plaintively asks, "What happened, Dennis?"

Lamothe, though, will have none of it. "Well, how the fuck should I know?" he says.

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