So begins the book Rocket
Boys, the story Homer Hickam, Jr. wrote of his childhood in Coalwood, a
mining community in McDowell County West Virginia.
One October night in 1957, when he was 15 years old, the
life of Sonny Hickam, as he was known then, changed forever.
“It turned out to be the pivotal night of my life,” recalls
Hickam. “We were in a deep Cold War with the Russians at that time. Everybody was scared of the Russians and the
Russians were scared of us and we were afraid of a big war and all of a sudden
they had launched the world’s first earth satellite and everybody was scared to
death of it!”
“But I’d read a lot of science fiction and I thought it was
kind of cool. And I read in the
newspaper where Sputnik was going to fly over Coalwood and I thought, ‘Wow! I
want to see that,’” he said.
“So I told my mom I was going to watch Sputnik fly over and
she told the neighbor lady who told the neighbor lady and by the time Sputnik
flew over about half of Coalwood was in my back yard!”
At the US Space & Rocket Center, a museum and space
training camp in Huntsville, Alabama,
Hickam described one of its main features – a giant water tank with portholes
around the sides. It’s 30 feet across, 25 feet deep and holds 100,000 gallons
“We’re at the Underwater Astronaut Trainer – this is a
smaller version of the big tank where I used to work out at NASA,” explained
Hickam. “It’s about a tenth of the size of the old Neutral Buoyancy Simulator.”
“What we did underwater was we trained the astronauts how to
do things in zero G by using the buoyancy of water to simulate space
conditions,” he said.
In the late 1980s, while this world-class space museum was
being redesigned, Hickam moved from NASA’s Marshall
Space Flight Center
next door to work here. The rocket
center has more than half a million visitors a year, including 40,000 children
and teenagers who come here to attend Space Camp or the Space
“I convinced Ed Buckbee, a fellow West Virginian who was the
general manager at that time, to let me build a small version of the NB
Simulator to train the Space Academy
kids,” said Hickam. “He thought I was crazy, but he let me do it anyway.”
“And we actually trained several astronauts in this tank.”
There were 20 years between the time Hickam and the Rocket
Boys won the National Science Fair in 1960, and his landing a job at NASA. In
the meantime he got a degree in engineering from Virginia Tech, joined the
army, went to Vietnam,
and worked for the Army in Huntsville, Alabama
He had nearly given up his dream of working for NASA when
“I began work at the Marshall Space Flight
Center—essentially helping to design a new science laboratory that would fit
into the Shuttle Cargo
Bay called the Space Lab,” said
Hickam. “I trained astronauts to perform scientific experiments in space and
also started traveling around to different universities across the world
helping the scientists to design their experiments and fit them in the Space Lab
Hickam worked for NASA for the next 20 years.
“Every scientist and engineer I know loves their work. When
I worked for NASA I woke up every morning and I said, ‘Oh boy, I get to go work
for NASA today.’ I mean, how cool is that?” said Hickam. “So whatever it is in
science, technology and math, if you decide that that’s the direction you want
to go, I can almost guarantee you’re really going to enjoy your life.”
Everything at the Space &
Rocket Center is
the inspiration of Wernher von Braun – rocket scientist, “the father of space
travel” and Hickam’s childhood hero.
Hickam would like a national holiday to honor President
Kennedy’s dream of space flight and von Braun’s vision and amazing achievements. And the current CEO and executive director of
the US Space & Rocket Center, Deborah Barnhart, wants to honor Hickam.
Barnhart worked with Hickam when he designed and built the
Underwater Astronaut Trainer and she’s impressed with Hickam’s expertise in so
many different areas.
“He reminds me of von Braun because one of the geniuses of
von Braun was that he was interested in so many different things and was
accomplished in many different areas,” said Barnhart.
While Homer Hickam was training astronauts in Huntsville,
he never gave up his other dream of being a writer. He recalled an early request from the Smithsonian – Air & Space Magazine.
“I was asked to write an article of 2000 words – they didn’t
care what it was, they just needed it overnight. I said, ‘You know, I used to build rockets when
I was a kid. I could write you 2000
words on that,’” he said.
“They were completely, totally, utterly under-whelmed with
this idea, but I wrote them 2000 words in a couple of hours and faxed it up to them
and the next morning the editor called and said, ‘Homer, I think you’re on to
something – half of my office is laughing at your article and the other half is
Hickam says that one little article changed his life.
“It absolutely did. And the idea that anybody would care
what happened back in Coalwood, West
Virginia in the 1950s was the farthest thing from my
I couldn’t imagine anybody would really care.”
The book Rocket Boys
quickly led to a Hollywood film, October Sky. Hickam retired
from NASA and has been writing ever since.
He has sold two and a half million books, many of them about Coalwood.
The story of six boys building rockets in a deep mining
valley in West Virginia has
become a classic. In 2011, Rocket Boys:
the Musical had its world premiere in West Virginia.
At every opportunity Hickam gives credit for his success to
the teachers at Coalwood School
and Big Creek
“They taught us very firmly.
We were expected to perform. But
we loved our teachers – even as strict as they were,” said Hickam. “I think that if you remember a teacher, it’s
most likely going to be a teacher that was not your buddy; you’re going to
remember the one that cared enough to be hard, the one that made you tow the
“So, what does West Virginia
mean to me? It really means the people
who gave me my values. And the teachers
who gave me a great education – really gave me the tools to go off and succeed
In return, Hickam gives back to West
year he gives scholarships to students at Marshall
and Concord universities as well as
his alma mater, Virginia Tech. He also
returns to West Virginia every
autumn for the October Sky Festival, and takes time to talk to every young person
who wants to meet him.
The head of the US Space & Rocket Center, Deborah Barnhart,
believes that Hickam’s talents, vision and legacy have truly changed the world.
“I think Homer embodies the idea of one of my
favorite von Braun quotes,” said Barnhart. “He said, 'All one can leave one’s
children is what’s in their heads. Education, not material things, is the
only legacy that no one can take from them.’”
“And I think Homer has devoted his life to inspiring people
to become educated in ways that can help the culture and humanity, by giving us
wonderful stories, and by giving us demonstrations of reality that have moved
the culture forward and moved the planet forward.”
Hickam will be featured in the documentary Inspiring West Virginians, produced by
Jean Snedegar and Suzanne Higgins, airing Thursday, September 13, at 9pm on West Virginia Public Radio.