The Rocket Boys, reaching for the October Sky

Raja Murthy January 11, 2017 5:45 AM (UTC+8)
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An Asia Times interview with Homer Hickam, the legendary ‘Rocket Boy’ from 1950’s USA, as India’s ISRO space agency prepares to deliver 103 satellites in a world-record single rocket launch, early February, 2017.

Our 21st century lifestyles, immeasurable benefits of technology are a great debt of gratitude we owe to pioneers like Homer Hickam and the spirit of the Rocket Boys from Coalwood town, West Virginia – all who walked a path few dared, and inspired generations to work for their dreams.

The original Rocket Boy Homer Hickam Jr. is alive and well, aged 73, a Vietnam war veteran, retired NASA aerospace engineer who worked on the Hubble Telescope and trained Space Shuttle crews. He is now an award-winning author (University of Alabama’s Clarence Cason Award, the Appalachian Heritage Writer’s Award) and an enduring inspiration to those aspiring to explore the unknown.

In 1957, 14-year old Homer ‘Sonny’ Hickam Jr. and five school friends in a small coal mining town entered the new space race, built rockets they merrily named ‘Auk’ (the bird that cannot fly) as answer to the Soviet Union’s Sputnik – the first human-built satellite.

Then followed their exhilarating three-year saga of boyhood trial and error, heartbreaks and highs, hard work and help (master machinists in the coal company-owned town welded the rockets), and epic experiments like rocket fuel made of moonshine from the local bootlegger. In 1960, the Rocket Boys’ 35th and final ‘Auk’ soared six incredible miles high – and into planetary folklore.

Rocket Boys

No rockets, no satellites. Without satellites we are hurled back to primitive days, limited communication, terrestrial television, and an Internet overburdened out of existence. Far fewer technological wonders of our times….

Hickam’s adventures with Quentin Wilson, Roy Lee Cooke, Sherman Siers, Jimmy “O’Dell” Carroll and Billy Rose were celebrated in Hickam’s bestseller ‘Rocket Boys’, and in Joe Johnston’s (Jurassic Park III, Captain America – The First Avenger) critically acclaimed Hollywood hit ‘October Sky’ (1999). See official trailer:

“As long as you are alive on this planet, you have a choice,” Homer’s teacher Miss Freida Riley told him. ‘The Rocket Boys’ and the movie ‘October Sky’ (anagram – rearrange letters in ‘Rocket Boys’ to form ‘October Sky’) became inspiration worldwide to those pursuing their chosen work of life.

“I never really worked in the ‘space industry’ per se, and have had little to do with it after leaving NASA in 1998; my vocation turned almost exclusively to writing both fiction and nonfiction,” Homer Hickam emailed me on January 9. “My space business contribution, other than being an astronaut training manager when I worked for NASA, came almost entirely by writing my memoir ‘Rocket Boys’ and its sequels.”

The book and the movie based on it inspired tens of thousands of young people across continents to study science and engineering – much to Hickam’s satisfaction. He serves the Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama, in an unpaid advisory role, “so I continue to do what I can to get young people interested in space, robotics, and the sciences.”

How to measure how much the Rocket Boys influenced space technology – even as their project ‘A Study of Amateur Rocketry Techniques’ won the coveted National Science Fair gold medal in 1960. Their undisputed contribution though is motivational: touching universal chords of determinedly pursuing that distant dream, in any walk of life.

As Joel Swain’s social media post said: “Mr. Hickham is an inspiration to all of us who don’t come from privileged backgrounds, but who have dreams of bigger things.”

bestcoalwoodrocketboys2
The original Rocket Boys from Cape Coalwood. Homer Hickam on left, Quentin, Roy Lee, and O’Dell. All photos (apart from Getty images) courtesy Homer Hickam Jr. and friends of Coalwood”

People even went back to college after seeing the movie ‘October Sky’, returning to do what they originally loved to do, but gave up doing. It’s never too late…

Young people wrote to Homer Hickam upset about parents forcing them into a career or life they do not like. In a familiar generational conflict, the Rocket Boys symbolized the will to break free, their rocket representing the human spirit of freedom soaring upwards, higher and higher, beyond the beyond, defying the force dragging it down.

“The series of rockets we Coalwood boys built over a three-year period (1957- 1960) helped to understand that it’s perseverance that makes for success, even more than intelligence and definitely more than having money.” – Homer Hickam

“Don’t just hitch your wagon to the stars,” my Economics professor in Loyola College told us, “hitch your wagon to the highest stars”.

Fittingly, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) has its world record PSLV rocket launch in the same month that Homer Hickam Jr. was born: February 19, 1943, in Coalwood, McDowell County, West Virginia.

‘Rocket Boys’ is more than a technology tale, it’s a people story – of conquering constraints of circumstances, of reaching for the October Sky in our lives. It may not have been what Hickam intended, but it was what it came to be.

Homer and Maxx at work, 2003. Max helped a lot on The Keeper's Son except her tail kept hitting the shift key resulting in peculiar capitalzations.
Homer Hickam doing what he loves most: writing. “I didn’t have to be a space engineer, but I had to be a writer”

Homer Hickam to Asia Times: “I think reading about the series of rockets we Coalwood boys built over a three-year period helped to understand that it’s perseverance that makes for success, even more than intelligence and definitely more than having money.

“The Rocket Boys built on both their successes and failures, using the latter to learn what NOT to do. In the book, readers follow the boys from when they essentially know nothing about how a rocket works, to when they are building ones that ascend miles in the sky.

“This successful evolution took perseverance and also a willingness to learn subjects that were difficult. For instance, I was terrible in math at first. By the time we launched our last rockets, I had taught myself calculus. The movie simplifies our work, but the truth as described in the book was far more complex, much more fun, and, in my opinion, the better story.”

The October Sky

It’s a radio signal transmitted by the Soviet ‘Sputnik’, as it traverses the October sky….” the radio newscaster’s voice reached somber listeners in Coalwood town, October 4, 1957.

Unlike satellite launches that are now routine news, Sputnik set off panic across the USA.

“It was terrifying moment for many,” remembered Homer Hickam. “Most people looked it at as a military defeat… right in the middle of the Cold War, the Russians had a rocket and we didn’t.. so it was very scary… people worried about nuclear war and annihilation.”

Picture dated 04 October 1957 shows the world’s first artificial satellite Sputnik I, which the Soviet Union launched from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Wavery and high-pitched, the beep-beep signal picked up on Earth signaled the dawn of a new era – but caused alarm in the USA amid the Cold War.

Fourteen-year old Homer was not scared; he was a great reader of science fiction books, and had hoped a rocket launch might happen in his lifetime, maybe a century later, or 200 years. He was thrilled, fascinated when it happened.

Homer Hickam: “The concepts of satellites being launched routinely and space tourists ‘out there’ were never far-fetched in my mind. However, I didn’t expect it to happen so soon and so quickly!

“Sadly, young people building rockets these days as I did when I was a boy is all but impossible. Getting the chemicals required is exceedingly difficult in this age of terrorism and government control. That’s a true shame. We learned by doing. Just seeing a computer simulation is not the same as building a rocket and smelling the burned propellant and chasing after a successful launch. Doing is the best way of learning!”

That October week in 1957, Coalwood townsfolk gathered to see the Sputnik sail across the night sky like a flying star. But Homer’s father Hickam Sr was not interested, neither did he think it possible. “President Eisenhower would never allow anything Russian to fly over Coalwood!” he declared, and went his way to the coalmine.

Homer Hickam Jr: “My memories of Coalwood always center on my parents and the people of their generation. They were brave and smart and dedicated to their children. The person who most inspires me, then and now, is my father. He was a great mining engineer and a true intellectual interested in history and philosophy. His designs caused many innovations in the mining industry which are still used today.”

Coal dust killed Hickam Sr in 1989. He suffocated to death. His younger son ‘Sonny’ Hickam Jr came to know when holidaying in the Caribbean. The ‘Rocket Boys’ book became tribute to his father.

“As all miners did, Dad knew that there was an implicit pact between him and the great, deep pit that provided all things.  For most miners, the value they took from the mine was in coin.  For my dad, it was his very sense of self-worth,” Homer Hickam wrote. “He was the superintendent of the mine, the acknowledged leader of the little town.  Most of the miners suffering from black lung did not suffocate to death.  Before that, their hearts failed them.  They fell and never rose, or went to sleep and never woke.  But when the disease of the mine came for my dad, perhaps because of the greater benefit he had derived from it, it came relentlessly and without pity.”

Homer’s rocket seemed a metaphorical flight from subterranean death – from the dark mines that fed energy to the world through the coal the miners unearthed, but dust of which choked their lungs, consumed their lives.

“And so my book (Rocket Boys) was written as it was meant to be, not a boy’s adventure, or a young adult’s inspirational tale,” Homer explained. “It was written for all of my generation who had parents who came out of the Depression and fought World War II and struggled from the day they were born.  It was written for all of us who watched our parents sacrifice in a million ways every day so that we might have a better life.  It was written for all of us who observed by deed every day how much our parents loved us but never experienced it through touch or word.  It was written for all of us who have tried our entire lives to find a way to reconcile that dichotomy.  Once, even if it had to be in the wilderness of West Virginia in a tiny coal camp on the black dust of a slack dump, one of us was allowed to find resolution and reconciliation….And that’s what I think The Rocket Boys is really about: reconciliation.”

The Rocket Era, 21st Century satellite times

The Russian rocket Dnepr launched 37 satellites in a single mission in June 2014. In 2015, India’s ISRO PSLV-C34 rocket launched 2o satellites together. In early February, 2017, the ISRO will send to orbit over 100 satellites in a single launch, a feat never before attempted by any space agency’s rocket.

“This number of 100-plus satellites was based on commercial considerations”, ISRO’s communications director Deviprasad Karnik told me on January 7, assuring that the record rocket launch was not a stunt.

The ISRO’s world record rocket launch reflects the exponentially growing satellite industry, with sturdier rockets and smaller satellites enabling busier space commerce, next space tourism, then space exploration in journeys to the stars.

Homer at work in the Marshall Space Flight Center Neutral Buoyancy Simulator in 1992.
The Rocket Boy Homer Hickam Jr. at work in the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center Neutral Buoyancy Simulator in 1992.

Space commerce currently worth US$314 billion, will cross $648 billion by 2025,  expects Christopher Stott, CEO of ManSat, and co-founder of the International Institute of Space Commerce.

“The commercial space industry is in effect the global backbone of the communications network for the entire human race, and supporting over US$4.3 trillion in communications activity,” Stott informed me in January, 2016.

Nearly a year later, I thought about the Rocket Boys of the October Sky when I came to know of ISRO’s planned PSLV rocket launch with 103 satellites. The longest journey starts with the first steps, the pioneering trail of path-makers.

” I hope to see more space telescopes even better than the Hubble Space Telescope launched in the future. Every space-faring country should have at least one. I really don’t understand why India, China and Russia don’t have space telescopes!” – Homer Hickam

“We were kids of the late 1950’s.  We were stuck in a coal camp and we were enthralled by the space race.  Of course we built rockets,” Homer Hickam wrote.  “Of course, we kept building them even when they blew up.  Of course, we kept working and learning until we had designed sophisticated rocket engines, capable of flying for miles into the sky.  Of course, we had won the Gold and Silver Award at the National Science Fair, 1960.  And then there was also something about John Kennedy being there with us…  Didn’t I, I realized, tell him while he was still a Senator that if he ever got to be President he should take the country to the Moon?”

The Rocket Boys return to the October Sky

Nearly turned 74, Homer Hickam returns to Coalwood town for the annual October Sky Festival – a celebration of the spirit of the Rocket Boys.

Picture

Homer Hickam: “I wish generations of kids could experience what we experienced growing up, when exploration was the greatest thing we were doing… imagine growing up in a time when Columbus was  setting out….” 

After the coal mines died, and a long period of decline, Coalwood is alive again. Townsfolk restored ‘Cape Coalwood’ (the Rocket Boys’ old launch range seen in the ‘October Sky’ movie), and organized the annual October Sky Festival, in the first Saturday of each October. Each month, thousands of tourists visit Coalwood and town people happily take them around to sites mentioned in the book.

Ten years after the ‘October Sky’ film…Steve Date’s YouTube recording of the October Sky Festival in Coalwood, 2009, featuring Homer and the surviving Rocket Boys, with actress Natalie Canarday, who played Homer Hickam’s Mom Elsie in the movie.

Homer Hickam lives a busy life with wife Linda, supports charitable causes, occasionally gives motivational speeches stressing how planning in a sequential, step-by-step, methodical way is very important in reaching your dreams, having a successful life.

“We first looked upon rocket-building as interesting and fun but then it becomes a challenge to defy expectations,” he explained. “Only much later does the idea of entering the science fairs occurred to us. An incremental approach has validity in all walks of life, academic and otherwise.”

Homer Hickam to Asia Times: “Using space to understand where we fit in the universe is the most important thing we can do up there. I hope to see more space telescopes even better than the Hubble Space Telescope launched in the future. Every space-faring country should have at least one! I really don’t understand why India, China and Russia don’t have space telescopes!

“Looking out across the universe and understanding it is the most crucial thing space organizations, both business and governmental, can do for us.

“As for human space endeavors, the moon is where we should go. It has so many resources that could be used here on Earth including gathering the isotope Helium-3 for use in fusion reactors. I wrote about mining Helium-3 and other minerals in my ‘Crater’ series of young adult novels which I set on the moon in the 22nd Century.

“As for Mars, without nuclear rockets or some other kind of powerful drives much better than the chemical rockets we have today, I think the red planet is out of reach for anything other than a lunge there by professional astronauts. Such a lunge I think would be for little gain other than to say it was done. Robots can handle Mars for now until we build the machines necessary to truly go there and stay.

“Have I ever thought about space travel? Of course and I’ll be happy to go if anyone steps up and buys me a seat on a reliable rocket!”

A satellite galaxy of the Milky Way, the Small Magellanic Cloud is a
wonder of the southern sky, a mere 210,000 light-years distant in the
constellation Tucana. A Hubble Space Telescope photograph. A
destination across space for the Rocket Boys of another generation,
the October Sky of a different age.

Raja Murthy
Raja Murthy is an independent journalist based in Mumbai contributing to Asia Times since 2003, The Statesman since 1990, and formerly for Times of India, Economic Times, Elle, Wisden.com etc. He shuttles between Mumbai and the Himalayas.
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