"Do we have timers? Timers are go. Do we have range safety? Range safety is go. The panel is armed and time is running at T minus five, four, three, two, one . . . lift off!

"Wow, it's a sun seeker!" shrieked Ed Pearson, director of the visitor's center at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

Suddenly the crowd of more than 650 spectators jerked their heads way back, squinted, shaded their eyes with their hands and simultaneously let one big "Ooohhhaaaahhh."

As what looked like a giant pencil flying through the air opened its parachute, Pearson bragged as though it was his own child, then helped navigate the vehicle to the ground.

"And the parachute is opening, it's gliding down nicely, it's near the mark. WOW! NICE SHOT!"

The crowd might well have been witnessing a hole-in-ole at the Kemper Open, judging by the applause that followed. But the cheers were for a two-ounce model rocket crashing to the ground in the right spot, instead of a dimpled white golf ball.

Thus began the first annual Model Rocket Contest held last Sunday at the Goddard Space Flight Center. It was the last of several events sponsored by the Washington National Space Week Committee to commemorate the 12th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing.

Toddlers to adults seemed fascinated as they watched tiny cardboard cylinders struggling to stay in the air in the "streamer duration" event, and as they closely studied the aerodynamic engineering designs that came closest to a predetermined target on the ground in the aptly named "spot landing" event. Pearson played the part of "launch control," announcing each shot to the crowd.

Of the 64 adults and children who competed in the events, five were Virginia residents. George ysemeples, 25, of Arlington, placed third in the adult division for the spot landing competition.

Like most of the adults who entered the contest, Sempeles is a scientist by profession and works as a nautical cartographer for the Defense Mapping Agency.

"I've been flying model rockets since I was 11. The most important thing to remember is that they're not toys, they are miniture scientific counterparts," he said.

"Model rocketry is not like any other hobby," he continued, "it's really a craft and that's way I like it."

Rocketry is similar to most sports in that there's more to launching a model rocket than meets the eye. First, once its tiny engine is ignited, the human eye can hardly follow a rocket as it thrusts from zero to 300 mph in less than a second and a half, soaring more than 700 feet into the air.

Then, of course, the missile has to go straight up for a perfect launch. That's where the importance of aerodynamic design comes in. It also helps to explain why model rocketeers stand around and have long discussions about various fin sizes. Fins are the fan-like blades on the tail of every rocket (real and model).

"All model rockets have to weigh less than one pound because anything over one pound has to get flight clearance with the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration)," explained Lee Poloway, of Bowie, Md.

Model rocketry requires the same technology it takes to get a real rocket into space. That is why most competitors at Sunday's event said the sport is not to be taken lightly.

Gregg McCain, 31, of Alexandria, takes his hobby so seriously he encouraged fellow members of the Northern Virginia Association of ROCKETRY (NVAR) not to enter the competition at Goddard.

"This is just an event to have fun at and that's why I came out to watch," explained McCain, who is secretary of NVAR. "We encourage our members to enter the more serious competitions sponsored by the National Rocketry Association."

NVAR has 25 members and was started in 1965, making it one of the oldest clubs in the 3,000-member National Rocketry Association.

Other NVAR members who joined McCain at the event were Dan Winings, 24, of Nokesville and Richard Pfundstein, 31, of McLean.

Members of the Quasar II rocket club of McLean wre also on hand to observe the competition.

Most of the hobbyists at Sunday's events said they build their rockets from kits unless they're experimenting with a design of their own. Rocket kits range from $5 to $30, except for those with remote control, which can cost as much as $200.

Beth Goetz, 28, of Arlington, was also pleased with the enthusiastic crowd that appeared oblivious to the 93-degree heat and high humidity. Goetz is director of the Washington National Space Week Committee.

"National Space Week (July 13 to 20) has been celebrated for the last three years, but this year is the first time there's been a real nationwide effort, which I think is really great," Goetz said. "We plan to do even more next year."

As the day's events drew to a close, McCain, sporting mirrored sunglasses and a baseball cap, was asked what he enjoyed most about the hobby he takes so seriously.

He though for a minute and then the answer came to him.

"It keeps me sober on weekends."