Of Rocket Boys and Science Fairs
By: John Shepler
Dr. Werner von Braun stopped at the Science Fair display and picked up a silvery metal object. It must have brought back a flood of memories as he held it in his hand, twisting it around to examine the details. He might have made this rocket nozzle himself when he was a rocket boy. Only someone who had been there, pioneering the physics of rocket propulsion to create the world's first ballistic missile, could truly appreciate the mathematical beauty in this small piece of machined steel. "A marvelous design," he remarked, and then said that he only wished he could meet the boy who built it.
That boy, who missed meeting his childhood idol because he had gone to look for him, was Homer Hickam, Jr. Homer is every science loving boy of the baby boom generation, and there were thousands, even millions of us. In the late 1950's and early 60's, every neighborhood had a kid smoking up the basement with noxious fumes from a Gilbert Chemistry Set. Each Christmas and birthday brought new adventures. A telescope to examine the craters of the moon, an Erector Set to build lifting cranes, bridges and trucks from perforated metal and machine screws, and for the younger kids, TinkerToys to build the same things out of wooden dowels and drilled wheels.
Two things made this possible. The first was a burning conviction by our parents that their children would have a better life than what they, themselves, experienced growing up in the roaring 20's, the depression 30's and the war years of the 1940's. The second was the beeping of a faint moving star in the skies above our homes. When the Russians put Sputnik into orbit, Americans woke up with a start. It was time to stop patting ourselves on the back for our victories in World War II. The world had changed. Science and technology were going to dominate the coming decades and we were, unbelievably, behind. Suddenly, science, education and all things technical became a national mission...just the right conditions for rocket boys to emerge.
This is where Homer "Sonny" Hickam Jr. and his friends come on the scene. They are sons of coal workers in a coal mining town. Sonny's dad, Homer Sr., is a self-taught mining engineer who dreams of one day turning over the mine he loves to his son. Sonny has his own dreams, though. He sees Sputnik moving among the stars over Coalwood, West Virginia. He reads of Werner von Braun and the excitement of setting up Cape Canaveral to send satellites into space and even to the moon. Sonny sets his sights on a career in rocketry and starts secretly experimenting with them in his parents' back yard. Then, as quickly as he started, he might have been finished, as he blows up his mother's fence and becomes known as, not a rocket boy, but a bomb builder.
They say it takes a village to raise a child, and this is how it works. Homer's dad is intent on convincing Sonny to adopt a career in mining, but knows deep down that his son has other dreams. So he does things that fuel the dream, like finding the boys a place to launch the rockets safely, Cape Coalwood, on a slag field just outside of town. He provides metal and cement, and allows his machinists to make the tubes and nozzles for more and more advanced rocket designs. Sonny's mom encourages her son's college ambitions and saves money secretly to help fund them. She also provides a kitchen pot to mix rocket fuel and laughs it off when he finally blows up the gas water heater while testing an advanced compound.
Then there is Miss Riley, his high school teacher, and Miss Bryson, the school librarian, who see a spark of something grand in Homer and order him a book that would never have shown up in Coalwood, "Principles of Guided Missile Design." Buried in that book were the secrets of supersonic nozzle design using calculus and differential equations. In 1960, Werner von Braun would pick up and examine the converging-diverging chambers of a nozzle designed to those equations by a group of high school science buffs and declare it to be "a marvelous design." Homer would bring home the gold and silver medal of the National Science Fair, the top award for the best of the best and brightest of the Sputnik era.
Now I think back at how my own dad had built me a plugboard full of switches and lights and a crystal radio before I could even walk and how he let me build science projects in his machine shop. I remember how my mother painted pictures of a fox, a chicken and an ear of corn on a little computer game I built for the Freeport High School Science Fair and how she helped make the backdrops look more professional that I could muster on my own. I remember how Sister Roberta called me over in 8th grade to say she had arranged for my solar energy project to be in the city-wide science fair, even though St. Thomas Grade School had not been included up until then and I wasn't aware there was even a science fair in the making. And, thankfully, my grandmother finally did let me back in the basement lab after I filled the house with smoke during an unexpected rocket motor ignition while my parents were at a PTA meeting.
Like Homer Hickam Jr., I was blessed with encouragement and support from my family, teachers and others who just wanted to help an enthusiastic youngster on the way to his dreams. This was perhaps the most valuable gift that "The Greatest Generation" gave to "The Baby Boom Generation." It is a gift that the next generation must also receive so that they have their chance to be known as computer whizzes, science brains or even rocket boys and girls.
Books of Interest:
Rocket Boys: A Memoir (aka October Sky) by Homer H. Hickam Jr. Captivated by the miracle of the first space flights, the young Homer Hickam and his friends started playing with and daydreaming about rockets. As an adult, Hickam would make rockets as an engineer at NASA. Rocket Boys is a touching memoir of the birth of the space age and of one man living his dream by finding his place in that great adventure.
The Coalwood Way by Homer Hickam. A companion to "Rocket Boys," this book tells us much more about the lives and times of the people of Coalwood, West Virginia. Find out how the town pulled together to get the mine productive again. Meet Poppy, Homer's grandfather who had both legs cut off in a mine accident, yet went on to read nearly every book in the library. Learn about Homer's loves and heartbreaks as he makes the transition into manhood. Full of drama and heartwarming stories that offer inspiration to those aspiring to big dreams. Read my review of The Coalwood Way on Epinions!
The Greatest Generation by Tom Brokaw. They survived the Stock Market Crash, The Great Depression, the horrors of World War II and went on to build the world we live in today. Our parents, our grandparents. This is their story.
Also visit Books-A-Million for an excellent selection of new books, magazines, e-books, audio books and more at low, low prices.
Also visit these related sites:
HomerHickam.com - Sonny Hickam's official web site. Find out more about this talented author and engineer. Learn more about his books, the movie "October Sky," and the Rocket Boys. See pictures of the boys as the were then and are now.
The Official Rocket Boys Home Page - All about Quentin Wilson, Roy Lee Cooke, Jim O'Dell Carroll, and Willie "Billy" Rose. You can contact them here.
Astronomylinks.com - astronomy and space links, shortcuts, favorites and bookmarks.
Telexplainer - High speed voice and network technologies explained in simple terms.
Copyright 1999 - 2018 by John E. Shepler. Contact me at: John (at) JohnShepler.com
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First Published: June 13, 1999 as part of A Positive Light