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THE PEOPLE in these photographs are ordinary Americans: chiropractors, postmen, doctors, factory workers. But they and their families have travelled to this cattle-ranch in Manchester, Tennessee, from 18 states, in pick- up trucks embellished with such number-plates as "ROCKET", "VAPOUR" and "MISSILE". They are members of America's largest group of amateur rocket enthusiasts, the Tripoli Rocketry Association (named after the bombing of Libya in 1986), and they have come together for a weekend of rocket firings. As they stand around, discussing thrust, burn-time and on-board telemetry, a voice comes over the PA: "God bless men and their rockets."

The rockets - which are basically giant, recoverable fireworks - range from 18in models, costing a few dollars, to 30ft monsters which cost as much as $6,000. The solid fuel motors are bought in model shops; the casings, of cardboard or fibreglass, are home-made. Their owners take turns to fire them - to heights of up to 12,000ft. Then the missiles float down to earth, in parachutes, almost intact: the only part that has to be replaced is the engine.

The largest of the Tripoli rockets was built by Dennis La Mothe, Tripoli's treasurer. Downright Ignorant stood 35ft tall, weighed nearly half a ton and flew successfully just once, soaring 3,500ft. On its second flight, it blew up. La Mothe is assisted by his wife, Terri, who went into partnership with him after her efforts at rocket-launching were sabotaged by jealous men. "Size matters to the men," Terri explains. "It's 'My rocket's bigger than your rocket.' " She is right: these rocketeers' obsessions with who has the biggest and the longest would keep a Freudian analyst in work for a lifetime.

Amateur rocketeers trace their hobby back to Orville H. Carlisle, from Nebraska, who, in 1954, developed a model made from paper, balsa and plastic, powered by a solid propellant motor. (A more romantic theory has it that the rockets originated in the Thirties near Glasgow, where experiments into "rocket mail" across lochs took place.) Rocketeering's growing popularity today is probably attributable to the US space programme. But of course, in a land where alien sightings are common, the rocket is also a way of making symbolic contact with other worlds.

The hobby is gaining supporters and fans in Europe; in Britain, rocket kits are sold at Hamleys. What with kits, fuel and publications (including titles like Rocketry and High Power Rocketry, which feature pictures of a scantily-clad "Miss Rocket-Boosters" suggestively astride a missile) the industry is worth some $20 million worldwide. But America is the main market, with some 20,000 enthusiasts.

A key prerequisite for the sport is a field five miles square - something usually only found close to an airforce base. Rocketeers ask permission for airspace in which to launch rockets, but if they are not given a "window" they sometimes just listen out for aircraft, make sure there are no clouds, and fire when it seems safe. The Federal Aviation Authority and the FBI have shown an interest, but have stopped short of banning rockets as potential terrorist weapons. The Kent police are less relaxed; last year, they detained an enthusiast who fired a rocket in the middle of Tunbridge Wells.

Despite such setbacks, rocketeering is booming - and the subject of a Channel 4 documentary tonight. Some rocket men are already talking about launching satellites; a few, more ambitiously, want to send a man up in one of their rockets. And there is a dark, recurrent rumour: that some household pets may already have been launched, and met nasty ends in the name of rocketeering. !