"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 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 -- 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.

Suddenly, 650 spectators jerked their heads way back, squinted, shaded their eyes with their hands and simultaneously let out one big "Ooohhhaaaahhh!"

What looked like a giant pencil flying through the air opened its parachute. Pearson talked 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 have been witnessing a hole-in-one at the Kemper Open, judging by the applause that followed. But the cheers were for a two-ounce model rocket crashing to the ground at just the right spot, not a three-ounce golf ball.

Thus began the first annual Model Rocket Contest last Sunday at the 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 and adults alike seemed fascinated as they watched tiny cardboard cylinders strugging to stay aloft during the "streamer duration" event. And they studied the aerodynamic engineering designs that came closest to a predetermined spot on the ground in the aptly named "spot landing" event.

Of the 64 adults and children who competed in the events, 55 were Maryland residents and all but one of the winners were from Maryland.

With a "swoosh" sound at his back, Eric Webber, 16, of Bowie, seemed to sum up best why most of the contestants like model rocketing.

"It gives you a feeling that you're involved in the space program," he said, then added, "Plus, I've always wanted to be an astronaut. I still plan to be one eventually."

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

For example, once an engine is ignited, the eye can scarcely follow a rocket as it thrusts from zero to 300 miles per hours in less than a second and a half, and climbs more than 700 feet in the same amount of time.

To be considered a perfect launch, hobbyists said, the rocket must go straight up. That's where the importance of aerodynamic design comes in. It also helps to explain why model rocketeers have long discussions about the various sizes of fins, the fan-like structures at the end of every rocket, real or model.

"We used to be very much into huge fins and a lot of weight, but with all the new technology we've scaled them down quite a bit," explained Alan Williams, 29, of Bowie.

Most hobbyists build their rockets from kits unless they are experimenting with an original design. Rocket kits are priced from $5 to $30, except those for rockets with remote-control devices, which may cost as much as $200.

"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.

Several local model rocket clubs were represented at Sunday's competition. These included the Eisenhower Junior High School Club, the Annapolis Association of Rocketry, the NARHAM Section rocket club, based in Hyattsville, the Bowie Association of Model Rocketry and the Wheaton Association of Rocketry. The Wheaton club is the current National Association of Rocketry national champion.

By the end of the day there were plenty of winners. In the "streamer duration" event, winners of the junior division were: first place, Matthew Beyers, 10, of Annapolis; second place, Chris Modine, 7, of Germantown; and third place, Robert Arvanno, 14, of Bowie. Winners in the adult division were: first place, Reese Wynn, 16, of Laurel; second place, Eric Webber, 16, of Bowie; and third place, Marty Blumsack, 38, of Bethesda, who teamed up with his daughter Sarah, 8.

In the "spot landing" event, winners of the junior division were: first place, Dan Thorpe, 13, of Rockville; second place, John Pleinis, 9, of Bowie; and third place, Anthony Pease, 8, of Upper Marlboro. In the adult division winners were : first place, David Eaton, 22, of Hyattsville; second place, John Howie, 21, of Lanham; and third place, George Sempeles, 25, of Arlington, Va.