Of Rocket Boys and Science Fairs The Inspring Boyhood Adventures of
Homer Hickam, Jr.
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.
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 these related
Rocket Boys Teacher's Guide -Additional information intended to "launch" discussion of the book in the classroom, courtesy of Penguin Random House publishers.
Homer Hickam - His official Facebook Page. See what the author is up to these days. You might be surprised.