It was a good morning for a rocket launch: the sky was clear and the winds were light. Jason Miller, age 10, steadied his five-foot, solid-propellant missile and started the countdown.
The crowd of about 50 children and parents watched anxiously as he flipped the switch igniting the rocket, which was powered by tightly packed gunpowder and charged by a car battery. The rocket, nearly a foot taller than Jason, rumbled a moment on the launch pad, then shot straight up.
At 1,700 feet, a puff of smoke appeared, the parachute billowed and the rocket drifted slowly to the ground, landing about 30 yards from the launch pad. Mission accomplished. The crowd gave out a hardy cheer.
Rocket launches in the playground at J.C. Parks Elementary School in Charles County's Bryans Road always draw a crowd. School administrators say the rocket club is the school's best-attended extracurricular activity.
"I like the action," said fifth grader Ryan Gick.
"It is exciting to watch them go up." Jason agreed. "It is exciting, 'cause you get to set it up, pack the parachutes and start the countdown. Then, when it goes off, you can chase after it."
The rocket club has about 45 members from grades 3 through 5, who meet three days a week for two hours a day, an hour before school and an hour after.
On Mondays and Tuesdays, said club sponsor Jim Swain, the group divides in half and concentrates on building or launching model rockets. The rockets, which cost about $8 to $20, are made of cardboard tubing, balsa wood fins, and plastic nose cones, and they are equipped with parachutes and engines.
They take up to a month to assemble, Swain said, and students spend hours painting the models and adding tape and decals so they look "just right."
Club members follow strict safety procedures, Swain said, and despite launching as many as 15 rockets in an hour's session, have never had an injury.
While the recent explosion of the space shuttle Challenger may have tarnished the image of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and provided a shocking reminder of the dangers of space travel, the tragedy seems not to have deterred the rocket club members.
Ask them if the space program should be abolished and they shout "no" in unison. Do they still want to be astronauts? "Yes!"
"Just because of one setback, you shouldn't stop the whole program," said fourth grader Missy Potter.
"They had a fire on the Apollo I [in 1967, in which three astronauts were killed in a fire on the launch pad] and they didn't stop it then," pointed out fifth grader David Shumpert, adding that he still would like become an astronaut.
The club, which was started last year by Swain, a physical education teacher, has placed two displays in the school lobby, one a set of model rockets made by students and the other a memorial to the seven astronauts killed in the shuttle explosion.
Swain, 32, who has had a lifelong interest in rockets and who worked for a time as tour guide at the Smithsonian's Air and Space museum, said, "I had run a physical education club [at the school] for a couple of years, and I just wanted to do something completely different. I always loved rockets and I knew rockets are exciting to kids."
Club members said the rocket club is the most popular extracurricular activity in the school.
"A lot of people like it better than school," said Jason Miller.
The club is one of the few such clubs in the Washington area. In Montgomery County, for instance, there are no rocket clubs, and officials said that rockets are not even permitted on school grounds. In Prince George's County, there are two rocket clubs, one at Andrew Jackson Middle School in Suitland, the other at Laurel High School.
Club members at the Parks school study the space program, the solar system and the atmosphere and even have homework and tests, Swain said, although no grades are given.
The rocket club also involves parents, 21 of whom will accompany 27 club members when they travel to Cape Canaveral in three weeks.
About 30 parents participate in five committees, Swain said. A fund-raising committee has raised about $9,000 for the trip, he said, bringing the cost for each student down to about $100 to $150. Some students, who are being sponsored by businesses, will not have to pay at all, Swain said. None of the money will go to pay for parents' trips, he said.
Two other committees are helping assemble "space suits" and props for the club's video play, "When You Wish Upon A Star." The play, written by Swain, is a short history of the manned space program, from Alan Shepard's 1962 Mercury Mission to the Apollo 11 lunar landing in 1969.
The space suit committee was in charge of making six space suits, complete with NASA and USA emblems, as well as finding helmets to be painted white for use as space helmets. "It is lucky we have government connections," Swain noted.
The work of the props committee is a little more difficult: Swain and four fathers have spent every Sunday since November at Jason Miller's home building "sets" for the play, including three realistic "control panels" for the various missions, and a 15-foot-high, 13-foot-wide "lunar module," made from two metal swing sets. The committee has done such a good job on the module, jokes Swain, that "you can't tell the difference between this one and the one at the Smithsonian."
The club is rehearsing the play three days a week, Swain said, and should complete videotaping in June. The club will show the tape at a school assembly, he said, and hopes to show it to NASA officials after that.